Why AI is the New Sliced Bread

Artists who fight AI may need to look in the mirror

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You’re an artisan. You’ve spent years or decades cultivating your craft, drawing knowledge and inspiration from family, teachers, peers, and artistic heroes. Inspired by them, you learned, practiced, and developed, hoping that someday you can leverage your passion, skills, and creativity into not just a remunerative career, but an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling one. But then someone invents a way to automate what you do, to have machines carry out the same craft. The results aren’t quite as good as what artisans like you can do, but they are good enough to meet most people’s needs—and, even more damaging to your dreams, they are considerably cheaper. You can only work so fast, and thus need to charge a pretty high price for your work to keep a roof over your head, the lights on, and your stomach full. The machines work far quicker, producing in mass, and you now justifiably fear you’ll never be able to make your art more than a hobby.

To make matters worse, people you know, or bump into on the street, or come across chatting about it, are consuming the product of these machines, showing it off to each other, and discussing how much they like it. These machines that only work because their designers stole the knowledge people like you have been building over generations, watching what you do and how you do it, so the machines can reproduce the outputs of that knowledge and craft. And all without compensating you, or any of your peers, and all in the service of producing soulless simulacra of your art.

I’m speaking, of course, of baking bread.

There was a time when every loaf of bread had a baker: an actual, living, breathing person who used his or her hands to mix the ingredients, knead the dough, shape it, and bake it. They learned this craft from other bakers, in an unbroken chain back to the very invention of bread, each refining his or her skills, innovating, bringing that human element that made every loaf unique. Then came factory baking, and, in 1912, Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the automated slicing machine. Today, you can still find artisanal bakers, of course, but most every loaf of bread, bought by most everyone in the developed world, came from a machine. Each of those consumers could have, if they cared enough about the artists who’d lost out in this transformation, instead paid a little or a lot more to get a loaf from an artisan.

Even you. Because—whether you’re an artist, a writer, or something else entirely—I bet you buy the majority, if not all, of your bread from that aisle in the grocery store stocked with nothing but the products of automating machines. You’re part of the problem. Not just by giving your money to corporations for their soulless product instead of an artisan for her soulful loaf, but also because every factory baked good you buy is the result of uncompensated use of the knowledge and craft developed by bakers going back generations.

Yet this probably doesn’t bother you. First because you’re used to benefiting from technologies drawing on what came before, and second because, while you might agree that the artisanal loaf tastes a bit better, you’d rather spend your money on other things. If you had no choice but to buy the more expensive bread from the small bake shop down the street, you’d simply buy less bread.

The most common arguments against the use of LLM technology—the chatbots like ChatGPT that produce text from a prompt, or the image generators like Midjourney that produce visual works—take a few forms. First, that these technologies depend upon learning from the work of human artists and writers, and those artists and writers weren’t compensated, or weren’t compensated fairly, for the use of their creations as training material. Second, even if they were, it would be wrong to use ChatGPT to generate text or Midjourney to generate images because doing so takes business away from human artists and writers.

What’s more, the resulting prose and pictures aren’t bad just because they’re so cheaply produced, or because they are patterned after the uncompensated knowledge and skill of humans, but also because they’re shameful. They lack the human element: the creativity and spark found in prose and imagery made by humans. Thus the person generating or using these knock-offs is triply wrong: he’s benefiting from stolen goods, he’s depriving a human of money, and he’s fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the thing he’s consuming.

All this sounds plausible when we’re talking about art and writing, because art and writing are artistic. They’re the kind of work creative people do. We view them as different, somehow, from the craft of shoes, phones, aluminum pipe, perfect bound paperbacks—or bread. They’re elevated, while the work of others is not. So while it is fine to eat Pepperidge Farm wheat bread, and it’s fine to put your dinner on a machine cut Ikea table, it’s not fine—in fact, it’s morally wrong, and outright repugnant—to stick a Midjourney generated image on the cover of something, or to use ChatGPT to write some marketing copy.

But I don’t know if artisan bakers agree that their craft isn’t as elevated, as quintessentially human, as writing or drawing. I don’t know that the artisanal cobblers or carpenters do, either. So what’s different? Why can artists and writers happily save a few bucks buying from Pepperidge Farm, Nike, or Ikea, but when the technology instead allows the rest of us to save on images and prose—or to be able to have custom images and prose at all, given how the cost of an artist or writer is often well outside our reach—that technology is immoral, dangerous, and in need of shutting down?

An argument for that distinction might exist. There might be good reason to think this time the automation is different. But the problem with so many arguments against AI technology is that they don’t address the distinction, and instead either wave it away or ignore it entirely. This makes the arguments look less like principled stands, and more like self-interested protectionism, and self-serving snobbishness.

If artists and writers complaining about AI don’t tackle that question head on—don’t give an account of why their creativity mustn’t be automated, but everyone else’s creativity is fair game—if they instead just assume the obviousness of a difference, then the rest of us can rightly ask them why they’re so callously and selfishly hurting bakers by purchasing factory produced bread.

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