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What I Really Think About AI

When I took this photo of a Short-eared Owl, I was standing outside in a prairie area in Iowa. It was February, the temperature was 1 degree F, and it was windy. As I stepped out of my car, my eyelashes immediately froze and I remember thinking I didn't care as long as I got something decent. I took a lot of photos of this owl on this branch, waiting for it to take off. It was not in the mood to move, however, so I just got many pictures of it looking around in different directions.

Afterwards, I was pretty excited, but also very, very cold. With the recent invention of artificial intelligence (AI) programs for photography, I could have come up with a similar picture without ever leaving my warm house.

My first brushes with AI were on Instagram when I saw several posts from people who were using AI to create pictures. Even National Geographic got in the game with a post asking people to guess which photos were real and which ones were created with AI. Sadly, I failed that quiz and guessed the wrong one. That experience showed me how close a fake picture could look to a real photo. The other posts I saw were largely from older gentlemen who were wildlife photographers but had gotten to the point that actually going out in the field had become difficult, or at least undesirable. While understandable, I found it lamentable that these people had given up on the real experience of being in nature and chose the easy route of creating pictures using AI. Ironically, one photographer's personal web page even touted how important it was for him to be outdoors capturing these special moments to share with others, while at the same time posting fake photos on Instagram.

The issues with AI are many, and as most people have realized, it's too late to "put it back in the box." It's something that we will have to learn to live with. One problem is that the programs are not usually "creating" something new, but rather combing the internet for images to copy and combine in new ways. It's an amazing concept, but also unfortunate for the photographers who are actually putting in the time and effort to capture real photos. Since the new images are different than the originals, it would probably be difficult to claim any copyright infringement, but it feels unfair nonetheless. These programs are using parts and pieces of other artwork without any consent or credit to the original makers. The more people who purchase these works of "art," the less interest or purchasing power there is for true artists.

The second problem with AI photographs is that literally anything goes. A person can create any fake photo that they can dream up, with virtually no limits. Imagine being accused of a crime and having "photographic evidence" presented against you that you have no way to prove is fake. As time goes on and the AI programs improve, it will be more and more difficult to tell them apart from real photos. As evidenced from the millions of comments posted on facebook photos, many people already cannot even tell an altered or composite photograph from an original one.

One benefit that I can see from an artist's perspective, is using an AI program to create a photo to work from when creating a drawing or painting. Sometimes, the idea you want to draw or paint doesn't really exist, so having a reference to sketch from is impossible. With AI, you can create the reference you need to look at to complete a work of art. (This doesn't really resolve the issues with copyright and credit to the original artists and photographers, but it is one use for AI that I could understand and appreciate.)

A team led by Ben Zhao of the University of Chicago has developed a tool called "Nightshade" for photographers to embed invisible pixels in their work before posting it online. This program will damage the AI training programs and cause their results to be useless, and the more people who use it the more effective it will become. Another program is called "Glaze," and it works in a similar way. Hopefully, this is the beginning of protections against the misuse of AI, and that more ways will be found to prevent issues from the use of fake photographs. In the meantime, you can support hardworking artists and photographers by buying directly from people who are trying to make the world a more beautiful place, one artwork at a time. AI may be able to replicate a photo of a Short-eared Owl, but it can never replace the experience of locking eyes with a wild bird or animal, smelling the scent of blooming lilacs, or feeling the wind blow across the prairie.

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