Issues around AI text to art generators

A new art-generating AI system called Stable Diffusion can create convincing deepfakes, including of celebrities.

TechCrunch has a nice discussion of Deepfakes for all: Uncensored AI art model prompts ethics questions. The relatively sudden availability of AI text to art generators has provoked discussion on the ethics of creation and of large machine learning models. Here are some interesting links:

It is worth identifying some of the potential issues:

  • These art generating AIs may have violated copyright in scraping millions of images. Could artists whose work has been exploited sue for compensation?
  • The AIs are black boxes that are hard to query. You can’t tell if copyrighted images were used.
  • These AIs could change the economics of illustration. People who used to commission and pay for custom art for things like magazines, book covers, and posters, could start just using these AIs to save money. Just as Flickr changed the economics of photography, MidJourney could put commercial illustrators out of work.
  • We could see a lot more “original” art in situations where before people could not afford it. Perhaps poster stores could offer to generate a custom image for you and print it. Get your portrait done as a cyberpunk astronaut.
  • The AIs could reinforce visual bias in our visual literacy. Systems that always see Philosophers as old white guys with beards could limit our imagination of what could be.
  • These could be used to create pornographic deepfakes with people’s faces on them or other toxic imagery.

We Might Be in a Simulation. How Much Should That Worry Us?

We may not be able to prove that we are in a simulation, but at the very least, it will be a possibility that we can’t rule out. But it could be more than that. Chalmers argues that if we’re in a simulation, there’d be no reason to think it’s the only simulation; in the same way that lots of different computers today are running Microsoft Excel, lots of different machines might be running an instance of the simulation. If that was the case, simulated worlds would vastly outnumber non-sim worlds — meaning that, just as a matter of statistics, it would be not just possible that our world is one of the many simulations but likely.

The New York Times has a fun opinion piece to the effect that We Might Be in a Simulation. How Much Should That Worry Us? This follows on Nick Bostrom’s essay Are you living in a computer simulation? that argues that either advanced posthuman civilizations don’t run lots of simulations of the past or we are in one.

The opinion is partly a review of a recent book by David Chalmers, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (which I haven’t read.) Chalmers thinks there is a good chance we are in a simulation, and if so, there are probably others.

I am also reminded of Hervé Le Tellier’s novel The Anomaly where a plane full of people pops out of the clouds for the second time creating an anomaly where there are two instances of each person on the plane. This is taken as a glitch that may indicate that we are in a simulation raising all sorts of questions about whether there are actually anomalies that might be indications that this really is a simulation or a complicated idea in God’s mind (think Bishop Berkeley’s idealism.)

For me the challenge is the complexity of the world I experience. I can’t help thinking that a posthuman society modelling things really doesn’t need such a rich world as I experience. For that matter, would there really be enough computing to do it? Is this simulation fantasy just a virtual reality version of the singularity hypothesis prompted by the new VR technologies coming on stream?

One letter at a time: index typewriters and the alphabetic interface — Contextual Alternate

Drawing on a selection of non-keyboard ‘index’ typewriters, this exhibition explores how input mechanisms and alphabetic arrangements were devised and contested continually in the process of popularising typewrites as personal objects. The display particularly looks at how the letters of the alphabe

Reading Thomas S. Mullaney’s The Chinese Typewriter I’m struck by the variety of different typewriting solutions. As you can see from this exhibit web site, One letter at a time: index typewriters and the alphabetic interface — Contextual Alternate, there were all sorts of alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard early on, and many of them could accommodate more keys so as to support other languages including a non-alphabetic script like Chinese. As Mullaney points out there is a history to the emergence of the typewriter that we assume is normal.

This history of our collapsing technolinguistic imaginary took place across four phases: an initial period of plurality and fluidity in the West in the late 1800s, in which there existed a diverse assortment of machines through which engineers, inventors, and everyday individuals could imagine the very technology of typewriting, as well as its potential expansion to non-English and non-Latin writing systems; second, a period of collapsing possibility around the turn of the century in which a specific typewriter form—the shift-keyboard typewriter—achieved unparalleled dominance, erasing prior alternatives first from the market and then from the imagination; next, a period of rapid globalization from the 1900s onward in which the technolinguistic monoculture of shift-keyboard typewriting achieved global proportions, becoming the technological benchmark against which was measured the “efficiency” and thus modernity of an ever-increasing number of world scripts; and, finally, the machine’s encounter with the one world script that remained frustratingly outside its otherwise universal embrace: Chinese.

Mullaney, Thomas S.. The Chinese Typewriter (Kindle Locations 1183-1191). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

The Best of Voyager, Part 1

The Digital Antiquarian has posted the first part of a multipart essay on The Best of Voyager, Part 1. The Voyager Company was a pioneer in the development and distribution of interactive CD-ROMs in the 1990s. They published a number of classics like Amanda Stories, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony CD-ROM, and Poetry in Motion. They also published some hybrid laserdisc/software combinations like The National Gallery of Art.

Unlike the multimedia experiments coming out of university labs, these CD-ROMs were designed to be commercial products and did sell. I remember ordering a number for the University Toronto Computing Services so we could show what multimedia could do. They were some of the first products to show in a compelling way how interactivity could make a difference. Many included interactive audio, like the Beethoven one, others used Quicktime (digital video) for the first time.

All of this was, to some extent, made anachronistic when the web took off and began to incorporate multimedia effectively. Voyager set the scene remediating earlier works (like the short film of A Hard Day’s Night). But CD-ROMs were, in their turn, replaced.

My favourite was The Residents Freak Show. This was a strange 3D-like tour of the music of The Residents that was organized around a freak show motif.

Thanks to Peter for this.

Knowledge is a commons – Pour des savoirs en commun

The Canadian Comparative Literature Association (CCLA/ACLC) celebrated in 2019 its fiftieth anniversary. The association’s annual conference, which took place from June 2 to 5, 2019 as part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Canada at UBC (Vancouver), provided an opportunity to reflect on the place of comparative literature in our institutions. We organized a joint bilingual roundtable bringing together comparatists and digital humanists who think and put in place collaborative editorial practices. Our goal was to foster connections between two communities that ask similar questions about the modalities for the creation, dissemination and legitimation of our research. We wanted our discussions to result in a concrete intervention, thought and written collaboratively and demonstrating what comparative literature promotes. The manifesto you will read, “Knowledge is a commons – Pour des savoirs en commun”, presents the outcome of our collective reflexion and hopes to be the point of departure for more collaborative work.

Thanks to a panel on the Journal in the digital age at CSDH-SCHN 2020 I learned about the manifesto, Knowledge is a commons – Pour des savoirs en commun. The manifesto was “written colingually, that is, alternating between English and French without translating each element into both languages. This choice, which might appear surprising, puts into practice one of our core ideas: the promotion of active and fluid multilingualism.” This is important.

The manifesto makes a number of important points which I summarize in my words:

  • We need to make sure that knowledge is truly made public. It should be transparent, open and reversible (read/write).
  • We have to pay attention to the entire knowledge chain of research to publication and rebuild it in its entirety so as to promote access and inclusion.
  • The temporalities, spaces, and formats of knowledge making matter. Our tools and forms like our thought should be fluid and plural as they can structure our thinking.
  • We should value the collectives that support knowledge-making rather than just authoritative individuals and monolithic texts. We should recognize the invisible labourers and those who provide support and infrastructure.
  • We need to develop inclusive circles of conversation that cross boundaries. We need an ethics of open engagement.
  • We should move towards an active and fluid multilingualism (of which the manifesto is an example.)
  • Writing is co-writing and re-writing and writing beyond words. Let’s recognize a plurality of writing practices.

 

From Facebook: An Update on Building a Global Oversight Board

We’re sharing the progress we’ve made in building a new organization with independent oversight over how Facebook makes decisions on content.

Brent Harris, Director of Governance and Global Affairs at Facebook has an interesting blog post that provides An Update on Building a Global Oversight Board (Dec. 12, 2019). Facebook is developing an independent Global Oversight Board which will be able to make decisions about content on Facebook.

I can’t help feeling that Facebook is still trying to avoid being a content company. Instead of admitting that parts of what they do matches what media content companies do, they want to stick to a naive, but convenient, view that Facebook is a technological facilitator and content comes from somewhere else. This, like the view that bias in AI is always in the data and not in the algorithms, allows the company to continue with the pretence that they are about clean technology and algorithms. All the old human forms of judgement will be handled by an independent GOB so Facebook doesn’t have to admit they might have a position on something.

What Facebook should do is admit that they are a media company and that they make decisions that influence what users see (or not.) They should do what newspapers do – embrace the editorial function as part of what it means to deal in content. There is still, in newspapers, an affectation to the separation between opinionated editorial and objective reporting functions, but it is one that is open for discussion. What Facebook is doing is a not-taking-responsibility, but sequestering of responsibility. This will allow Facebook to play innocent as wave after wave of fake news stories sweep through their system.

Still, it is an interesting response by a company that obviously wants to deal in news for the economic value, but doesn’t want to corrupted by it.

Plato’s Virtual Reality

From a Humanist note I came across the fine essay on virtual reality, The Promise and Disappointment of Virtual Reality. It starts and ends with Plato’s cave and the responsibility of those freed from the cave to go back in and help others. Alas the state of VR technology doesn’t yet seem good enough to free us from reality and in this case the reality of VR is the commercialism of it.

But Plato’s Cave presupposes that those freeing the prisoner from their chains to reveal the true nature of “reality” are altruistic in their intent—that the world being shown the freed prisoners is indeed the truth. It is an allegory that does not allow for the world as it is today, or the pervasive desire to escape it.

The continued commercial failure of VR may represent an unconscious resistance to jettisoning our connection to the real. Maybe we are waiting for that blockbuster game to drive mass-market appeal. Perhaps the technology simply is not good enough yet to simulate a truly authentic—and profitable—experience. In this sense we are trapped. We crave authenticity of experience but, despite the efforts of philosophers, authors and auteurs, our imaginations appear limited to what we can individually consume and identify with. While capitalism lumbers on, we cannot see anything but the shadows on the wall.

What is nice about this essay by Mark Riboldi is the tour of the history of virtual reality technologies and dreams. What he doesn’t talk about is the sense of disappointment when the first generation of VR didn’t live up to the hype. I remember in the 1990s believing in VR (and lecturing on it.) When it proved clunky and nausea-inducing I felt let down by technology. Perhaps I and others had dreamed too much into VR led on by novels like Neuromancer. I was convinced VR was the logical next thing after the GUI. We had gone from a one-dimensional calligraphic screen to a two-dimensional desktop … wasn’t the three-dimensional virtual world next?

It is also worth mentioning that there have been a number of people writing about gender differences in how VR technology affects us. See Closing the Gender Gap in Virtual Reality. The technology seems to have been designed for men and calibrated to the male experience of reality.

‘Photo Archives Are Sleeping Beauties.’ Pharos Is Their Prince

Pharos is an effort among 14 institutions to create a database that will eventually hold and make accessible 22 million images of artworks.

The New York Times has a story about a collaboration to develop the Pharos consortium photo archive, ‘Photo Archives Are Sleeping Beauties.’ Pharos Is Their Prince. The consortium has a number of interesting initiatives they are implementing in Pharos:

  • They are applying the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model.

The CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model (CRM) provides definitions and a formal structure for describing the implicit and explicit concepts and relationships used in cultural heritage documentation.

  • They have a visual search (which doesn’t seem to find anything at the moment.)
  • They are looking at Research Space (which uses CRM) for a research linked data environment.

Why We Need to Talk About Indigenous Literature in the Digital Humanities

Screenshot from 1991 BBC Horizon documentary

I’ve just come across some important blog essays by David Gaertner. One is Why We Need to Talk About Indigenous Literature in the Digital Humanities where he argues that colleagues from Indigenous literature are rightly skeptical of the digital humanities because DH hasn’t really taken to heart the concerns of Indigenous communities around the expropriation of data.

Continue reading Why We Need to Talk About Indigenous Literature in the Digital Humanities

Carpenter: The Gathering Cloud

From the Modification of Clouds

The Cloud is an airily deceptive name connoting a floating world far removed from the physical realities of data.

The Gathering Cloud by J. R. Carpenter is a great interactive work that uses Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds from 1803 to meditate on the digital cloud. The The work “is a hybrid print- and web-based work by J. R. Carpenter commissioned by NEoN Digital Arts Festival 2016.”

Continue reading Carpenter: The Gathering Cloud