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Beats & Bits Illustration: Mayo Bous. Illustration: Mayo Bous.

AI... The cycle repeats itself

Thomas Alva Edison did not invent the technology for the "sound writer", better known as the "phonograph" (nor was he the inventor of the light bulb; but that is another topic). He was preceded by the lesser-known "phonoautograph," which failed in its practical utility because its developer failed to devise a way to reproduce what it could record. Without downplaying his contributions, Edison actually took the right components and arranged them in a clever way to bring new technologies into the everyday realm. In the case we are dealing with today, he brought to the world the possibility of preserving sounds and being able to listen to them at any time.

He thought of various applications for this and created a list in order to predict their sales potential, although those related to music were far from being among the most important at the time. Some of the uses were: the original concept of audio books (intended for blind people), recording last words and announcing the time. There was much criticism of the idea of recording and listening to songs. Recording was not considered an art, nor a profession in itself; it was said in the prestigious media of the time that refined men with good taste would have "cavas of oratory".

Some argued that listening to music at home, using technology, could be compared to drinking alcohol alone, snorting cocaine, loneliness in company and opium. So they tried to sell the invention as a "dictator for offices". It is no coincidence that much the same happened with other technologies such as photography and cinema.

This leads us to understand that the new means of expression, in every era, have been strongly denied by people who, in addition, can be considered intelligent and capable in their contexts. During the times of appearance of some technological conceptions, today naturalized in their use, more importance was given to the technical novelty than to their artistic and expressive potential. Today we are precisely in the phase of being dazzled by the thrill of the impossible, of seeing AIs work and getting into child mode with a new toy at every news about it.

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Society and use are the ones that end up to establish and define what is useful and for what purpose. A good example of this is that it was not until 20 years after the phonograph appeared that its own developer reluctantly accepted that music was the most widespread use for the invention (ahead of audiobooks or teaching spelling). 

Nearby in time new machines appeared to store images, including movement (also the telephone and the popular applicability of alternating current). For a long time it was denied that a photographer or filmmaker could be considered an artist. Rather, they would be understood as machine operators, laborers of a new kind at best. The self-development of techniques and studies aimed at expanding the possibilities were gaining social relevance to the most celebrated practitioners of photography as an art form and a way of life.

Some painters feared for their work. An evident uncertainty appeared at the idea that we would no longer need to paint family portraits, landscapes or still lifes with a brush to decorate or express ourselves. However, the plastic arts coexist in harmony and the labor market continues its dynamics. Some experts consider that the essence is that art is a thing of humans made by humans and for humans (very debatable, we will see it in depth). 

As was to be expected, this was not the end of painting, music, literature or artists. Strictly speaking, there is enough historical evidence to understand that each technological acquisition has come to incorporate new methodologies, forms and means to enrich artistic expressions. I believe that it is entirely coherent and expected to find today patterns of previous cycles. Are artificial intelligences a danger for artists and artistic manifestations as we know them?

My answer to that: of course they are! I'm very glad they are. Just as the phonograph, the advent of photography and cinema revolutionized the landscape of cultural consumption in their time, today IAs and Web 3 have the potential to start revolutions.

Bringing a symphony orchestra to every home and making the enjoyment of cultural luxuries more equitable has been a consequence of communication technologies. Socializing and democratizing creation was the next step. More and more people could make art, or express themselves through expressions associated with art (which is not the same thing). 

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What most people don't seem to like in the social networking forums dedicated to these topics is the use of new intelligent tools to make art (generative AI). Some argue that there is no art in the synthetic generation of multimedia (that there is a lack of will, sensitivity, thought, creativity, consciousness). 

To answer this question, we would have to start by defining the term; but first, let's start from a consensus: artist is the one who makes art. I am not an "artistologist" and I know very well that if you want to see someone stutter, you'd better ask him what art is and withdraw silently. 

Paraphrasing Duchamp, we may find that art is made by the viewer. This would indicate that each person has the right to determine what is and what is not. Kant would smilingly observe the relativism of things for themselves and the absence of a thing in itself in this article. This debate should not be reduced to such a terse answer. Art, as a good social construct (like almost everything else) is a changing, dynamic, relative and unstable concept. Any new element can change its qualities (think of the butterfly effect). 

Artificial intelligence can be understood as a means to make art (as if it were a camera) and the one who inserts the order to generate a work is the artist (like a photographer). I was told that the real artists are the programmers of these intelligent tools. In my opinion, this is equivalent to saying that the credit for photographic works should go to the camera manufacturers. 

Others say that the artists are the ones who created the images that make up the banks used to train the generative intelligences (basically a generative AI analyzes many, many works to create from them). What seems to escape them is that, precisely, the process of human creativity is about learning and creating new relationships between pre-existing objects, concepts and/or elements. You are as human as Edison and me. We get inspired by things we've seen and, with any luck, come up with a clever way to present something novel. The catch is that already some AIs can do this same job in seconds; albeit for very specific tasks.

I would venture to say that there is a high probability that in the relatively near future, AIs will be artists in their own right. It is a matter of time before they develop sentience, self-awareness and autonomy (I invite you to do some research on the former Google employee who spoke about the rights of artificial consciousnesses). They will have to be endowed with rights and we will have to cohabit with a form of "life" out of our hands. A good friend would say that we are God.  

Allow yourself the surprise of the future. Many are going to be shocked by what is coming, perhaps in the same way that Edison and his contemporaries were in their time. Poor those who feared for the end of live concerts. Instead of fearing, it is necessary to flow with the knowledge that is coming to enjoy the possibility and the relative privilege of being alive in these times. Music and the world as we know it are in danger (is it good or bad?). 

Avatar photo Edu O'Bourke Professor and Researcher in Social Sciences. Psychologist and singer-songwriter. More posts

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  1. Laura Domínguez says:

    I really enjoyed Eduardo O'Bouke's articles. I learned and what attracted me the most was the questions he leaves open on the subject.

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