Alice and Sparkle, I’m diving in head first.
Are you up to speed on this controversy? “Author” Ammaar Reshi created a children’s book, and people are pissed. Reshi started playing around with the new Artificial Intelligence text generator ChatGPT. On a lark, he tasked it to write a children’s’ book. Happy with the results, he turned to another AI program called MidJourney to generate the illustrations. Read about it in this Time Magazine article. I haven’t seen Alice and Sparkle yet, but apparently, Reshi created a passable children’s book over a weekend by simply entering requests like “Write a children’s book about a girl who builds a robot….”
I messed around with ChatGPT a couple of weeks ago when I first read about it in the news. Educators were freaking out. Kids won’t learn to write book reports. ChatGPT will do it for them. They won’t even read the book. I was skeptical. I asked ChatGPT to write an essay about the use of imagery in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I wrote a paper on this exact topic my freshman year of college. And just like the outcome teachers today are predicting, I didn’t read the book, either.
Feeling overcommitted by my busy social life of keg parties and bong circles, I never got around to starting Moby Dick. I planned to crush through the book over Thanksgiving break and knock out a thousand words off the cuff. But after reading for hours and barely making a dent in the book, I drove to Peoples Drug Store and bought the CliffsNotes. I still needed to write the paper, but someone else did the research. I got a “B.”
ChatGPT wrote a nice paper for me. It was a little short, but I’m sure I could have told the program to make it longer. As an experiment, I refined my request by asking that the paper be written at a college level. The program altered the vocabulary to include bigger words. It came off sounding snooty. But that original attempt, if I submitted that paper instead of mine, I think I would have ‘earned’ the same “B.”
As a writer, I find it a little scary that AI can create content from scratch. I expect to see an exponential growth curve in AI performance. How long until my computer eclipses Steinbeck and Stephen King? How long until it churns out symphonies more sophisticated than Beethoven’s?
The primary concern I’m reading about Alice and Sparkle is that the artwork is derivative. The software analyzes a universe of similar picture book illustrations on the internet to determine what works best for this story. Because the AI generated images contain styles and techniques stolen from other books, the illustrators say they should be earning royalties on the book.
Shortly after I became serious about writing, I came up with an idea for a children’s book. Gassy Ghost was a story about the spirit who lives invisibly in my house. I know he’s there because we always smell farts, but no one is ever responsible. It seemed so simple to write, until I tried. I just couldn’t make it work. As I lay in bed at night cataloging words that rhymed with ghost, I began to envision the artwork. Muted colors; misshapen heads; exaggerated facial features; a smirking, transparent ghost. I couldn’t paint those images, but what if I could describe them to an illustrator? They could do the job.
Where did those images in my head come from? I didn’t make them up. I’m not that creative. Surely, I saw something like that before. More likely, I saw elements of what I imagined in a variety of other children’s books. I was at the tail end of the read-aloud picture book phase with my kids. Over the previous decade, I read hundreds of picture books dozens of times. I have no doubt my images were derivative of what I saw the artists doing. And that’s my point. All artwork is derivative.
Each generation builds on what came before. Books, movies, paintings, music, even athletics. We take the bits of what we like best and meld them with other bits. We internalize them and regurgitate them in our own style. Something new forms, but the original work, the legacy, still lurks in the background.
Possibly these claims of plagiarism have merit; I lack knowledge of art and legal precedent. But in my mind, these AI programs are doing exactly what humans have done from the beginning of time. AI content creation is here. It can already create a passable children’s book. We’re on the cusp of a new entertainment era. You can love it or loathe it, but you better get used to it. Lawsuits won’t keep it away.
This essay was not written by AI.
The above image was stolen from the internet. If it was AI generated, does anyone really own it?