Picture that you’re a carpenter. You’re designing a long desk for a client. They want it made out of mahogany, and they want it to be solid. Preferably, they’d like it to be 70’s style. They don’t want the edge to still have the bark on it. You quote them for the time and materials going into the project, and they start backpedaling. Your expertise costs too much for them, and there’s a machine making tables out there for 50$ a pop. Sure, it’s not the right wood, it’s not solid wood, it wiggles, and if you want to order another one it’s going to be different from the first one because the results are very inconsistent, it also snatches designs (with questionable legality) from other carpenters to mash into this mess, including designs that leave knots in strange places in the veneer – but it’s only 50$. If you look closer, it’s not even sanded – it doesn’t know what sanding is, it just knows “tables are smooth” so the sanding is someone else’s job once the machine understands the table to be ‘smooth’ by its own metrics, some of which the end requestor can’t see. It’s using veneer to make this table, though. It’s difficult to sand without punching through. The customer doesn’t know how hard fixing it is going to be.

None of this makes the machine’s table as good as the table you could make, but because the machine is there and it looks functional, upper management (that doesn’t understand the problems with it) are using it to justify haggling for an insultingly low fee from you, the skilled tradesperson, because “a machine is going to take your job if you charge too much”… even though this same thing happened with cheap, overseas sweatshop labor that promised mediocre products at an incredibly cheap price, and it didn’t poof your job out of existence then. They aren’t convinced of your worth, so you guess the machine won. You can’t make the table at that rate without losing money. Their strange table arrives, upper management pretends to be happy because there’s a bit of pride involved, and everyone is slightly unhappier than they would have been if a machine had never been lumped in with human carpenters or posited as a replacement. This machine has screwed up the calculus that goes into ordering tables, because it does in fact make tables, but it takes a human touch to make them really good and exactly like you wanted. Heck, even those poor folks machining IKEA furniture could make something better, albeit at 80$. No, the machine is dirt cheap, and so it won.

Some companies may take note and go with a human carpenter, some may not – either way, this machine is not the death of carpentry. It’s changed the environment, and human carpenters will once again have to prove their worth in the face of industrialization, but it’s far from the end.

This is what’s happening with AI art.

It’s not as communicative as real artists, it’s not capable of building an unusual or interesting scene the same way people are (it is essentially creating an average out of everything it’s been fed in order to meet your prompt). If you like what you got but you want something tweaked, good luck; you’re not going to get the same picture twice with just the stuff you wanted fixed out of an AI. It’s inconsistent to a fault. It also can’t produce a new style that isn’t composed of other styles. ‘Every style is made of other styles’ you may say – yes, but not like this. Rothko, Monet, and Klimt may all be pulling from old masters, but you’d be really stretching it to say they’re all alike. AI, as it stands right now, can’t make a new style the way artists can. Is it possible for a machine to produce something new off of terabytes of harvested data? Maybe – but not today. Not tomorrow, either.

And yet, some are heralding it as the end of the traditional artist because it sometimes spits out stuff that looks good, just don’t look at the hands or teeth. AI art is not what’s killing art jobs, it’s the companies that mistake the AI for a cheap ticket out of paying for labor that are killing art jobs. When they realize what they’re getting, they’ll have a choice to make – go back to paying the artists, or settle for slightly uncanny, difficult-to-standardize art made by AI.

Some will go for the worse product, and some will not. The future is unpredictable, and maybe the wobbly table machine gets much better, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it starts charging a fee to use, etc. Humans may not be able to do it as cheaply, but they’re at least promising some sort of quality and consistency, and they can respond to minor and major tweak requests without redoing the entire piece.  

The AI art does not win by default just for existing.