|Picture Limitless Creativity at Your Fingertips|
I recently did a talk with the awesome Heidi Siwak about how educators might understand and engage with emerging artificial intelligence technology rather than doing what education usually does and bury its head in the sand.
A few days later I’m reading WIRED and Kevin Kelly nails down not only a way to migrate into this disconcerting future full of AIs, but also how it works and why everyone shouldn’t be terrified of it:
“Generative AI will alter how we design just about everything. Oh, and not a single human artist will lose their job because of this new technology.”
That’s a pretty daring prediction, but Kelly goes on to explain that most AI generated visual art isn’t being used in traditional places. Instead it’s a deeply person form of visual expression hyper focused on the co-creator (the human working with the AI). As a result, much of the art produced by AI acts as a kind of art therapy. That hyper personal focus is something education systems (based on 19th Century factories) really struggle with, but it’s the future if honouring equity and diversity matter in any real way..
What has me most excited about AI is precisely that it treats people more like individuals than people do. If a future education system has AI teaching assistants that radically individualize instruction, then I consider that a massive win for children and a huge step forward in terms of pedagogical best practice. The only resistance to this individualized, equitable technology enhanced future would be the people managing the current status quo to their own benefit.
Instead of a teacher who barely remembers your child’s name, let alone his reading level or his neurodiversities, an AI that responds to his needs precisely and when he needs it to sounds like the kind of future I want to live in. We’re currently happy with loud attention seekers getting most of the attention in class while the quiet ones fall through the cracks, and by ‘we’ I mean the people running public education.
No humans may lose their jobs with visual arts AIs in circulation, but I suspect some teachers might. The ones making all the noise about banning AI are the very ones Clarke was talking about in his famous quote. A hybrid AI assisted classroom can offer the kind of individual attention that our schools have always struggled to provide, but not if education bans it and hides from this inevitable future for as long as it can.
In the article, Kelly goes on to talk about how AI democratizes visual arts. There is a follow up piece that talks about the 19th Century panic around the emergence of photography (painting is dead!). Each of these technology disruptions put visual mediums into more people’s hands. There was a similar panic when smartphones made everyone a photographer in the early 21st Century. Just because you have a camera in your hands doesn’t make you a photographer, any more than waving a paint brush makes you a painter. There is intentionality implicit in art that technical skill is only a part of. Machines that make it more accessible don’t give the users those esoteric art skills needed to make art, but they do offer a ‘lowercase’ opportunity to visually express your ideas.
Knee jerk reactions to these technological disruptions give Kelly a chance to talk about the ‘tech panic cycle‘. This is another not very flattering mirror for education to peer into. This cycle of panic defines how education has stumbled when facing every emergent technology in the past 40 years.The latest AI panic is just another in a long line of poorly managed evolutionary opportunities. Education has always been more interested in maintaining a self-serving status quo rather than exploring enhancements to pedagogy. The digital skills crisis and flurry of successful cyberattacks we’re in the middle of are the result of systemic failures to teach emerging digital media literacies that stretch back into the 1980s.
The presentation Heidi and I put together gives examples of how two teachers focused on evolving pedagogical best practices have explored AI in our classrooms. In my case we got into it five years ago when a parent who happened to be on the IBM Watson team offered to get us going on coding AI powered chatbots. We found this so easy to do that it ended up being part of our grade 10 coding curriculum along with web development. At the same time my game development students were discovering that we needed to get a handle on enemy AI scripting in Unity or our games wouldn’t play well (stupid enemies are boring). The introduction to AI had students learning about intents and thinking about coding in a collaborative rather than dictatorial way. This not only enriched our game development scripting, but it also led to seniors exploring adaptive algorithms in large data-sets and exploring GitHub’s CoPilot. This approach has had us learning ‘AI Whispering’ years before it became an emergent media literacy…
“Behind this new magecraft is the art of prompting. Each artist or designer develops a way of persuading an AI to yield its best by evolving their prompts. Let’s call these new artists AI whisperers, or prompt artists, or promptors. The promptors work almost as directors, guiding the work of their alien collaborators toward a unified vision. The convoluted process required to tease a first-rate picture out of an AI is quickly emerging as a fine-art skill.” – WIRED
Heidi leapt into ChatGPT when it first arrived and has done the hard work of building this new media literacy of ‘AI Whisper’. From there she early adopted Education CoPilot, which promises to be a time saver for teachers who want to spend more time individualizing their students’ learning rather than making tedious, one-size-fits-all lesson plans. The majority of our presentation had Heidi walking teachers through how ChatGPT works and showing examples of how Education CoPilot can produce excellent highly-stylized materials (like lesson and unit plans).
Reading Kelly’s article focused on AI visual design a week after doing that AI in the classroom presentation resonates. The one time I was allowed to teach visual arts in high school, I was given a grade 9 curriculum that was so prescriptive that the projects in it sounded like directions for an AI: ‘Make an acrylic painting using the techniques practised in class in the style of the Group of Seven’. ‘Using perspective drawing techniques, draw a picture of a room in your house’. I understand the need for these skills focused assessments, but the opportunity to create wasn’t something grade 9s were being encouraged to do. The entire course was entirely focused on lowercase creativity making it very easy for an AI to do the work. Maybe the seniors got to explore uppercase creativity, but I never got a look in at any of those classes. This raises difficult questions around how we’re going to develop skills when AI keeps stepping in to do work that students only see as busy work.
The other thing this visual arts department fixated on was photography, which they described as ‘real’ photography complete with dark room and chemicals. The follow up WIRED art history piece on the 19th Century photography panic casts a poor light on that thinking. Photography was considered the ‘end of painting’ when it first appeared, but nothing of the sort happened. What the new medium of photography did was create new influences that enriched both painting and the emerging medium. AI visual design will likely follow a similar path. What doesn’t work is clinging to an old way of thinking rather than encouraging this enriching influence.
|Dall-E AI generated future makerspace|
I took photography as a unit in art college and it bankrupted me. I loved it and I was good at it, but ‘real’ photography seems to be a be-spoke, privileged medium that the idle rich seem to find their way into. The cost of it caused me to eventually drop out because I couldn’t juggle 40+ hours of night shift work a week with full days in class. At the time I believed this was a great personal failure on my part, but with the benefit of hind-sight, I’m amazed at how much my immigrant socioeconomic status defined my access to and success in education, and especially in the arts.
I found my way back into photography when we lived in Japan after I graduated from university with massive student debts (another economically dictated decision). Digital cameras were just coming out in Japan in the late 90s and I got my hands on them early. This technology democratized photography and let me get back into it without bankrupting me. Hearing an arrogant gatekeeper-to-the-arts telling me that what I did wasn’t real photography was difficult to take. This approach to the arts is quite common in high schools.
|Dall-E AI Generated: future classroom|
Kelly suggests that AI supported visual arts won’t stop human made art because it serves a different need. In this way, like photography before it, AI visual co-creation will bring the ability to produce visual representations of their thinking to more people – providing we start teaching this new media literacy of ‘AI whispering’. AI art generation is a fascinating new combination of language skills, visual media and technology, and utilizing it will bring visual expression to more people. The only ones getting angry about it are those who are guarding the privileged gateway to it.
So much technology use is hobbled by the politics of education. Black and white politicizing means unions paint technology as teacher replacing evil, which gives politicians interested in pushing education into private hands exactly what they need to do that. When no one is focused on improving pedagogy, we all lose. What education should be focused on is using every means at out disposal (technological, social or otherwise) to individualize and amplify student learning. Sometimes that might mean technology supplants a teaching position, but more often it should mean we are reorganizing how we do things to produce better learning outcomes though intelligent use of emerging technologies.
AI will certainly shake the foundations of education. The dinosaurs fixated on taking us back to the good ‘ol days of rote learning and mono-cultural absolutism where all students learn rigorously in the same way should be far behind us, but those are the days every anti-technology educator longs for – when things (like photography) were ‘real’ and inaccessible to the proles.
The thing I’m most looking forward to with AI in education? It so quickly makes what we’re doing in our low resolution factory-designed classrooms look poor that it will turn over the apple cart and force public education to reboot into a more individually focused, student-success driven model. In those future schools students will experience mastery learning based on their own abilities and will be supported individually. Students able to may graduate high school at 15 years old, others may need it until they are 20. Learning would be hyper personalized and teachers would be conducting an orchestra of supports and data rather than overseeing a low-resolution classroom where individuals matter less than their age.
|Education will focus on making this not true for as long as it possible can, but it shouldn’t.
From an artist’s point of view, Kelly doesn’t explain the place of human made art in a future where ‘lower case’, ‘rote’ art, ie: what is evidently taught in most schools, will be machine created. This raises some interesting questions about how we teach complex skill sets (like photography or painting) in a world where the skills are expressed by machines rather than people. If machines are reading to you and writing for you, do we need to know how to do those things either? Chasing that goal would lead to dire consequences. There are real benefits to human beings learning complex, tangible skills, both psychologically and economically.
When I take my decade old SLR out and catch a moment in nature because its talking to me, I’m not
chewing through processing resources so that a machine
intelligence with no understanding of nature creates an inherently abstract representation of what I’m experiencing. I take photographs to catch the light and make a moment permanent, so you can float in it. Technology assists me in doing that by helping me collect and share the data from that moment, but that data has a realness to it that no AI abstraction, no matter how well generated, will manage – because the AI and the media it creates is implicitly not in the world experiencing it directly.
|When I was out in the polar vortex, I discovered that the ice crystal structures forming were incredibly complex compared to what I usually see, so I started working the macro lens as though I were seeing Joan Miro paintings. Imperfections and unconscious details render a natural truth in the photograph. Technology assists, but doesn’t replace the subject.|
I’m also not tied to the internet
while I’m out in the world photographing. At its very best, an AI might be able to imitate
getting close to nature, but it could never actually do it because of
what it is. In the same way that a spectacular CGI effect in a film is
almost too realistic, a good old-fashioned stunt with IRL effects offers
nuance that makes it feel more genuine (because it is).
No matter how good AI gets, it’ll always be imitating that immediacy until it gets to experience it directly and then express its understanding of that experience.
|Is having machines do it all for you really good for you?|
Kelly also doesn’t mention what all of this accessibility to visual expression for everyone is costing us in terms of resources. AI will get better in terms of energy consumption, but it isn’t a very efficient way to do simple things that people are too lazy to learn how to do themselves (like draw). If we’re going to keep off-loading work people are more than capable of doing in a world where we have more and more people and fewer resources to burn, does pouring billions into AI make any sense for anyone but billionaires looking for even cheaper labour?
I (like WIRED) still fall on the side of exploring and integrating emerging technology if it means better learning outcomes for students. One of our greatest underused resources are all those humans we’ve got out there struggling to make ends meet. A dozen of them are the Einsteins we need to solve the global problems we face. If AI can help us realize more students’ potential, then surely we should always be coming down on that side of things, even when it’s scary and involves us changing old habits.
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