Just Another Tool
by Curtis Craddock (03/18/2023)
Artificial Intelligence in art is just another tool.
People keep saying that as if “just a tool” minimizes the impact of the development.
Do people not understand just how important tools are?
Tool use, is one of the defining habits of the human species, but the term “tool use” really sells the concept short. “Tool use” gives the impression that the use of tools is somehow optional or extra. It’s something we could forego or abandon altogether if we wanted to. That’s just not true. Animals of all types have figured out ways to manipulate the environment to increase their chances of survival, and many of them have become so dependent on those extra-biological adaptations that they could not survive or prosper without them.
Honeybees cannot live without their hive, African termites would not survive without their elaborate nests and fungus farms, beavers would not thrive without their dams.
So it is with humans and our tools.
It is more appropriate and descriptive to say that we have learned to export many of our essential biological functions into our created objects, that is to say everything from blunt rocks to sharp rocks, to bronze, steel, steam, and microchips.
And all of these things, at their root, exist for the singular purpose of reducing the number of calories we must expend to stay alive.
Yes, it’s the kind of statement a rational monkey might want to argue against, but it is the root from which all other benefits of technology spring.
Long long ago, humans mastered fire and almost immediately began cooking their food. But why? It turns out that cooking food makes it easier to digest which means you get more calories out of cooked food than raw food. This has been going on so long that we as a species have developed a genetic preference for cooked food.
We’ve also learned to modify our food genetically to provide more calories relative to the amount of calories we must spend to harvest them. And we have learned to plant them in fields so that we don’t have to wander far afield to locate them.
Likewise from the moment we picked up rocks and used them to crack bones to get the marrow out, we were saving calories from muscle use (not to mention the wear and tear on our teeth). With stones we ground up grain to make it easier to consume. We domesticated yeast to make bread and booze again to free up calories and incidentally to store them in concentrated form.
With our tools we made more tools, like clothes to keep us warm (again preserving the precious calorie). We domesticated animals to provide work and food. We took advantage of the power of water and wind to augment and replace the power of muscle.
We developed writing to improve and communalize our memory making it possible to organize more people more efficiently. This may not seem like it has anything to do with preserving calories, but the advent of writing enabled such an increase in the efficiency of society that more people were able to engage in specialized occupations that did not involve producing food. In other words the number of surplus calories increased.
In brief, every time humanity invents some tool to make some process easier, what we are doing is exporting a little more of our biology into our stuff.
And this has never been a bad thing, or at least the downsides have never outweighed the upsides as far as our energy-conserving brains are concerned.
In the modern era we have combine tractors that can harvest crops from vast swathes of land better than people ever could and almost entirely without human intervention. We have backhoes that can dig trenches in hours that would have taken teams of workers days to dig before. We produce so much food that a significant percentage Americans are nhealthily overweight, which is something our calorie-driven brains are bad at compensating for.
And we’ve also exported many of our mental processes. Just as writing allowed us to export our memory (and incidentally to disseminate and preserve our collective knowledge) so have other devices allowed us to extend our senses, to speed up our calculations, to hasten our communication. And every time we do this we take a little of the pressure off our base metabolism.
Thus, the whole of human history, as it relates to our inventions is one of exporting and subcontracting our biological needs, to the point that our bodies and minds are widely distributed in the things we have created.
Which brings me, at long last, back to AI, particularly as it is being used to create art and writing.
It is I think, inevitable that, as we have exported every other energy-hungry biological process that we eventually export our creativity at well. Being creative is hard. Being good at it is even harder and more calorie intensive.
Our brains don’t care if we are expending precious calories digging ditches or making art. When a more efficient method presents itself, that is the way our species will go, as it has always gone. When humanity finds a workaround that allows them to be creative without any of the effort, then humanity will inevitably adopt that method en masse, and leave behind individuals who have traditionally done that same work the hard way.
Yes, there will still be people who make art, just as there are people who still keep gardens in their back yard. And though such gardens may be things of beauty producing the most delicious crop imaginable, they have exactly zero effect on the greater economy of agriculture. Such projects are vestiges of an earlier adaptation, atavistic expressions of a once useful organ that now drags along in the water like the back legs on a whale. So it will be with art of all kinds. People will make art for their own pleasure, without an expectation that it will ever be enjoyed by anyone else, while media for the masses will be produced by fast, cheap AIs.
And humanity will dilute itself a little more, distributing just a little more of ourselves into the domain of our technology.