Crumpled paper dancing with fire, the orange tones mirrored by a distorted tiger. The scene looks like some sort of abstract social commentary, but it’s really just a picture generated from a nonsensical phrase I cooked up, churned out by an AI in minutes: “A paper tiger up in flames.”
AI-generated art is now a full-fledged trend in niche communities such as subreddits, where several viral images featuring AI art have piqued people’s the attention. The budding art form is a shining example of human innovation, but also raises important questions about the value of art, a deeply human endeavor.
Just a year ago, AI art was mostly known for style transfer, a method that formats an existing image into a certain art style. Think: Your iPhone selfie reimagined in the style of Van Gogh’s oil paintings. There’s also DeepDream, a program developed by Google in 2015, which warps images using AI recognition—the AI identifies familiar patterns within images and reinforces them until the result is often trippy subjects, the stuff of fever dreams.
Then, in early 2021, coders successfully combined cutting-edge AI tools VQ-GAN and CLIP to create a revolutionary image generator that’s starkly different from its predecessors. Unlike previous versions of AI art, you don’t need to feed an initial image to the program—the new method allows users to produce works of art just by entering word prompts from their wildest imagination. The AI does the rest by scouring a vast database of images to match the text.
Mo Kahn, the founder of AI art mobile app starryai, told VICE that he wanted to make the art form more accessible to non-coders. Now, people can create a piece on the app just by entering words into it.
“I thought, like, why isn’t this available to the common man? Like, why can't I share this with my friend and he should be able to instantly create it without getting into the technical aspects of it?” said Kahn.
These AI codes are often open-source, and with the proliferation of AI art apps, access to AI art has now been pretty much democratized, available to anyone who’s interested, even those with no technical background.
According to Kahn, besides hobbyists, there’s also a small group of NFT enthusiasts using starryai to churn out art pieces with ease. “With AI art, you can pretty much generate thousands of artworks within minutes if you set it up correctly,” he said.
This begs the question of how AI art might interact with human artworks created the old-fashioned way—manually and often painstakingly. How does AI measure up to its human counterpart when the art they make can look so similar? How should AI art be valued? Users of AI art are already exploring these profound questions.
“We tend to view art as a uniquely human quality, something that sets us apart from other animals. But as AI improves, I believe it will become more and more difficult to differentiate between a digital image created by a human and one created by a machine,” said Aaron Wallace, 44, a software engineer from Michigan, United States, who dabbles in AI art.
“For me, it’s really fascinating to see how a computer interprets our words and images,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many who have found a deep resonance with the computer-generated artworks.
Wallace uses NightCafe Creator, another popular AI art platform. NightCafe Creator was founded as a side project about three years ago, but saw a huge surge in the traffic to its site after one of its recent text-to-image creations went viral on Reddit.
Its Australia-based founder Angus Russell recently started working on NightCafe full time after the app took off.
“A lot of really smart people have started getting into AI art, working on new algorithms, improving the current ones,” said Russell. “The explosion is going to continue, because there’s going to be more new, cool methods for creating art coming out, which is really awesome.”
While the AI art scene is only going to get bigger, some are optimistic that it will complement, rather than compete with, human art.
“I enjoy AI art due to its uniqueness and mystery,” said Elijah G., an avid NightCafe user in Wisconsin, U.S. “Although I don’t think it will ever overtake human art, AI art is an amazing way to get inspiration for anything from short stories to art of your own.”
And for many, AI is just a virtual paintbrush for human creativity.
“What I enjoy most, is that when looking at abstract art, there is this flurry of thought, before you find the thing that resonates the most with you,” said C. Oldfield, an AI art enthusiast in Ontario, Canada.
Oldfield takes a similar approach with AI art. He enters creative text prompts in search of a certain resonance with the generated image, and especially loves experimenting with the theme of bonsai trees. “It’s this strange harmony that occurs, where you find yourself agreeing with the representation the AI has created,” he said.
Oldfield uses WOMBO, another app that generates AI art, to create fantastical bonsai trees out of word prompts.
“I would recommend anyone try it, especially if bonsai makes you as happy as I,” he said.
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