Cormac McCarthy novels (SImon Roughneen)


Even as the jury is out on whether artificial intelligence (AI) could make people extinct, some academics reckon it at least should not kill off art or writing or music.

Bur AI tools are capable of “high-quality artistic media for visual arts, concept art, music and literature, as well as for video and animation” and  may “fundamentally transform” human creativity, according to US academics writing in the journal Science.

All the same, tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney, already being used to write passages of novels and create realistic photos, are not likely to be “the harbinger of art’s demise.”

Bot-generated books, paintings and songs would not mean an end to art, said Ziv Epstein of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington’s Aaron Hertzmann, but instead would be a “new medium with its own distinct affordances.”

And while machine-learned art might sound like an oxymoron, it could end up “ultimately enabling new models of creative labour and reconfiguring the media ecosystem,” they believe.

“The generative capabilities of these tools will fundamentally transform creative processes: how creators formulate ideas and put those ideas into production,” the researchers said.

In turn this “transformation of creativity” would “disrupt many sectors of society” and would, as many industry analysts have predicted, result in people being laid off or even left without work.

“As a suite of tools used by human creators, generative AI is positioned to upend many sectors of the creative industry and beyond—threatening existing jobs and labour models in the short term,” they said.

Their journal article was published on June 15, two days after the death of Cormac McCarthy, author of “The Road” and “No Country For Old Men”, as well as “Blood Meridian”, which, though published in 1985, has in recent years been touted as the best US novel ever written.

On June 13, the day McCarthy died, Paul McCartney said that AI tools were used to prise the late John Lennon’s voice out of demo tapes from the 1970s for inclusion in what would be a final Beatles single to be released in 2023.

But could ChatGPT and similar tools go beyond the kind of work done with the late Lennon’s voice? Could they emulate McCarthy’s story-telling, his seamless and singular weaving of exhilarating lyricism and sublime menace?

It seems unlikely, going by recent accounts – in publications from The Washington Post to Business Insider – of what the bots churn out when asked to come up with fiction.

There was obvious lifting from real books, a concern previously raised by analysts reviewing how the bots come up with scientific or medical output. Meanwhile, reviewers listed “weak endings”, a “lack of a distinctive voice” and “inconsistencies” as among the defects of the AI-generated ‘literature’.

It sounds like a long way off one of the late McCarthy’s more celebrated passages – the coin toss’ scene in “No Country For Old Men”, the watch-through-your-fingers cinema version of which has been doing the rounds on the internet since the 89-year-old’s death.

In words that could be used regarding some chatbot output, Anton Chigurh, the book’s nerveless, psychotic hit-man, sneers ominously at a hapless gas station operator, telling him: “You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?”

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