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In Defense of the Human Brain
It’s a mistake to outsource our creative and critical thinking tasks to AI.
In an op-ed for The Free Press, tech entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen proclaims the good news about Artificial Intelligence. “AI Will Save the World,” trumpets the headline.
According to Andreessen, AI will enhance all aspects of life, turbo-charging innovation and placing unprecedented technological power in everyone’s hands. Not least of all, it will usher in a “golden age” of creative arts, an era in which people can realize their visions “far faster” and “at greater scale.”
Already, in this brave new world, AI applications that enable people to generate text and images with minimal prompts are being touted for their ability to free creative people from making mistakes, expending effort, and being alone while working. In other words, from the hallmarks of the creative process.
Viewed outside the mechanistic lens of efficiency, this utopian vision feels oddly dystopian. If the digital age—with its outrage-exploiting algorithms and endless streams of “content”—has taught us one thing, it’s that more technical power doesn’t necessarily mean better alignment with human goals.
Artists and creative workers—people who derive value not only from the results of artmaking but also from its process, who aim to explore a loosely conceived vision rather than realize a preconceived one—know this in their bones. Deciding where to place a (physical or digital) brushstroke or selecting a word for its precise connotation are deliberative actions by which we separate good ideas from bad, discovering what “works” and what doesn’t through the experience of engaging with each component of a project and intuiting how it relates to the whole.
Using AI to instantly generate an entire image, on the other hand, bypasses the challenges and opportunities of wrestling with each part. Crafting a novel or story accompanied by a constant stream of AI assistance bypasses the process of sitting alone with our own thoughts, thinking our way out of mental ruts.
“That’s the point,” you might say. “Thanks to AI, we can forgo unnecessary detours on our creative journey if we so choose, while those who want to take the scenic route can continue to do so.”
The problem is that employers driven by a desire to compete in a fast-paced marketplace may require their employees to regularly shortcut the process, expecting them to use AI tools not just for art, but for any task involving conceptual thought. Teachers aiming to prepare their students for the realities of life may require them to do the same.
In this scenario, so-called generative AI could leap from friendly option to looming necessity in lucrative creative and analytical pursuits, cementing cultural expectations that this is just “the way it is.” This could bring forth a society in which those who spend their lives honing creative and cognitive skills are fewer and farther between.
Ironically, if this comes to pass, we may suffer a diminished capacity even to use AI well. Using technology in a manner that serves human goals, after all, requires determining what those goals are—and the process of creation helps inform that. “Art is a line around your thoughts,” said painter Gustav Klimt. “Writing is thinking,” wrote historian David McCullough.
Traditionally, we’ve relied on qualitative disciplines like art, literature, and philosophy to examine how specific behaviors and policies inform our sense of life’s depth, beauty, and meaning. People who immerse themselves in these fields are often concerned with how medium and method impact the message—an essential line of inquiry in a time of rapid technological change.
But enrollment in the humanities has been on the decline for a decade, partly due to the belief that these subjects are increasingly irrelevant in a tech-centric culture. If AI sounds their death-knell, as some predict it will, in universities and elsewhere, our capacity for understanding human flourishing—and for using AI in a way that serves it—is sure to be diminished.
Fortunately, the future is not written in stone. As with any technology, we get to decide how and in what contexts to employ AI. We also get to decide what existing practices we allow it to displace. We can use this challenging moment as an opportunity to revive conversations about how we determine what’s valuable. We can breathe new life into the traditional purpose of the humanities, on college campuses or elsewhere.
We might call this looking backward to look forward: examining how traditional methods of creating augment our lives before deciding whether and in what circumstances to discard them; applying age-old questions—“What is the purpose of art?”, “What does it mean to live a good life?”—to new-age problems in order to address them with wisdom and humility.
In the words of visual artist Chuck Close: “The best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” Whatever the future holds, we should take these words to heart. After all, even if AI changes artmaking as we know it—and that’s a big “if”—we’ll still have to contend with the art of living.
Talia Barnes is a writer and multimedia artist exploring media, culture, and expression.
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