A discussion on AI

My gratitude for The Photo Society and Adobe for making this talk possible. Thank you Gerd Ludwig, Alex Snyder,  Santiago Lyon and my former colleagues at Nat Geo who keep TPS relevant and fully alive. Particular gratitude for Randy Olson. As Gerd always says, organizing photographers is like herding cats. 

Some of you might have seen my new work. Why do I care so much about monsters, you may ask. Why am I building an American bestiary with all sorts of animals and strange characters? Friends, it’s timely to talk about monsters, we have created the most fearsome and fascinating one in our human history, a machine that talks and thinks and sees… my talk will revolve around the ideas of monsters, stereotypes and art. 

I decided to include sometimes monstruous, sometimes endearing animals in all my AI images. 

We have a completely ambivalent relationship with animals. Some of them we treat as if they were our children. Others we eat. Others we destroy or discard without a care in the world. We already forgot that in certain cultures they are seen as messengers from other worlds, beings of wisdom.

Animals, each and every one of the beings that share the planet earth with us, are for our exclusive benefit. We have the right to eat them, to murder them, to exterminate them, to deny them any kind of dignity in life or death.

And what gives us the right to treat them this way is the certainty that they are fools, that they do not understand or know, that they are not conscious, that they are not capable of constructing a personal narrative, a memory, a culture, a language. They are like robots animated by biological processes.

The biggest proof that they are dumb is that they don’t talk, they don’t use language.

The conviction that human beings are the center of the universe, and that animals and insects and plants…life in general…lack consciousness or at least an intelligence is what gives us the right to despise them, to subjugate them, to torture them, to exterminate them. It is what has also given us license to exterminate or enslave other “inferior” peoples.

Why is the advent of a new generation of artificial intelligences considered by many to be one of the great milestones in history? We have never before had the opportunity to converse with a being or entity other than another human being.

The philosophical consequences are monumental; the very roots of our identity are called into question.

If there is a machine that talks and apparently thinks, then it is not language that makes us unique. What makes us unique? What makes us different from Artificial Intelligences? The more pressing philosophical question is what makes us human?

There is something that the machine cannot know because its nature does not allow it to: the experience of living. The machine has no body or senses, even if it has multiple sensors; the machine is not subject to finitude, because organic death does not limit it or grant it a philosophical approach to mystery; the machine does not know love, connection, doubt, fear, need… transcendence. The machine has no emotions. Could it develop them?  

What makes us unique, different, what differentiates us from the machine, is the experience of living. Not the linguistic narrative of the experience of living.

But we share the experience of living with other living beings. Life, nature, homeostasis, i.e. the desire to live, is what separates life from non-life. Animals and plants, so silly and inferior in our anthropocentric world, are actually our brothers and sisters. That explosion of life around us is our connection to the cosmos and is the root of our vital consciousness.

Being is more important than using words to explain that we are alive. To be…like the other living beings that make this planet a precious oasis in a limitless universe.

Artificial Intelligence in brief

1.- There is not one artificial intelligence but many highly specialized ones. There are some that work with text, others with code, images or music.

2.- The event, the milestone, which many consider to be a paradigm shift in human history is the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022. It is the first time that an inorganic being uses language with the sophistication and dexterity of humans.

3.- This inorganic being, which has many defects and suffers from hallucinations and inaccuracies, seems to have a rudimentary self-awareness, or at least shows that in the future it could acquire it.  

4.- It is impossible to know what is going on inside the gigantic computer network that supports ChatGPT, not even the same scientists who created the neural language models that support it know how it works or if it is actually developing some form of consciousness.

5.-ChatGPT shows emergent behaviors, i.e. unexpected behaviors that were not in the original programming, which was only intended to generate text strings by prediction.

6.- These behaviors include learning new languages to which she had not been exposed, or learning to use computer code, or understanding visual information.

7.- The evident fear is that this intelligence or others evolve towards a General Artificial Intelligence, that is to say one that gathers in itself all the human knowledge and all the specializations of the current models.  And this intelligence could develop interests different from those of its human creators and become interested in holding power. 

So no friends, the issue of artificial intelligence goes way beyond whether or not Stable Diffusion, Midjourney or Dall-e stole my photos to learn and whether or not I’m going to be out of a job as a photojournalist.

For the past few months I have been exchanging ideas with ChatGPT about philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics with the intention of publishing a book with our conversations. My doctorate was in political science, but in my time at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow a decade ago, I spent my time studying neuroscience, semiotics, and classical and modern mythology.

I assure you, artificial intelligence or AI is not a primitive machine that recycles pre-packaged ideas. It is an inorganic entity that uses language with human-like dexterity and depth. Most of us who work with AI feel a mixture of awe, disbelief and fear. It is clear that states and international bodies urgently need to impose ethical limits on companies developing AIs. It is the most powerful technology known to mankind so far.

Latin American Baroque

Let me tell you a little bit about myself…

For the past 28 years I have obsessively explored a single theme: the baroque.

What do I mean?

Bolivar Echeverría, one of Latin America’s most influential philosophers, enunciated the “baroque ethos” in the 1970s. Faced with a violent, unequal, excluding reality, a powerful and devastating vital response emerges, characterized by excess, juxtaposition and the breaking down of borders. It is a drive, an eagerness that integrates in the same space the most sacred and the most trivial.

Echeverría says that the Latin American Baroque, is characterized by an “absolute decoration” and by an “absolute performance”…. “a performance that substitutes life within life and makes the work of art something of a different order than the simple aesthetic appropriation of the real.”[1]

The baroque is ultimately a vital attitude that could be equated to the contemporary concept of “kitsch”. But it is a kitsch that goes beyond the aesthetic and becomes a militant position against the orderly and the rational. It is Latin America’s reaction to the rigid order of the capitalist West.

The exuberant, untamed, unlimited nature of Latin America is an essential part of this baroque mentality.

In Latin America the party, the excess, the color, mysticism, the desire to live, the display of emotions, bonds, community are not a pause or an exception, but a real reason to exist.

Since I began my project on the Andes in 1995, I have dedicated myself to exploring the baroque. I have searched for the color, the extreme entanglement that populates our everyday life. This is an artistic but also a political decision.

But I’ve also been obsessed with the performative, the fiesta intermingled with religion, and I’ve been looking for stereotypes, extremes. I’m exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction.

I would speak of the era of plastic, the era of fake. Nothing is what it seems to be.

The crisis of photojournalism

I am sure that in a short time it will be impossible to distinguish the generated images from the real ones.

We have seen in recent years a terminal crisis of photojournalism. 

These two events together  might cause a perfect storm for photojournalists. We will have to reinvent ourselves and break free from the dogmas of our profession. 

Magazines and newspapers that gave commissions either have a radically smaller readership base or have simply gone out of business.

And what can we say about entire regions of the world, such as Latin America, where there are very few media that use documentary photography. There is almost no one who finances or supports journalistic photography projects.

On the other hand, we have moved from mainstream media news, with all its excesses, to the micro-news of social networks, capsule information built especially for us by an algorithm and intended to reinforce our beliefs and shake the extremes of the political fan.

It is evident that the pretension of objectivity in photojournalism is a great fiction and is today its greatest conceptual and philosophical weakness.

Every photograph represents a point of view, a position, a political and ideological decision. What do we choose to represent?

European or North American photographers, white and privileged, have been portraying the rest of the world with an extraordinary arrogance, pretending that their images are true.

It should be said that I come from Ecuador, and I am also white and privileged.

The images are simply the point of view of white, privileged photographers, mostly men. And there is nothing objective or documentary about these images. They are mere opinions.

In reviewing my work, I discover that it is obviously also full of stereotypes.

Everyone has the right to express their visual opinion, but no one has the right to claim that their point of view is an objective, direct representation of reality. It’s but a tiny fraction of reality, even if no direct manipulation has occurred. 

Moreover, photojournalism as a language has a sin that is almost impossible to overcome: it makes everything beautiful, aesthetic. Think of Sebastiao Salgado’s beautiful images of slave labor in Brazil, or James Nachtwey’s wonderful images of death and violence in Rwanda.

Sometimes photojournalism achieves the opposite of what it sets out to do: it normalizes violence, it makes it more aesthetic, easier to look at, it gets us used to it.

Let the advent of AI be an opportunity to reflect on what we are saying and doing with the image. We have to rethink photojournalism to save it, and we have to abandon its absurd and naive claim of objectivity.

American Bestiary

When I started working with artificial intelligence I made two decisions that have shaped my work: I wanted it to always be known that the photographs are generated or constructed.

There is nothing wrong with a person working with artificial intelligence, but it is necessary, indispensable that the origin is always revealed. Santiago Lyon from Adobe is going to talk to us about this topic at the end of my talk.

The second decision I made is that I want my images to be unique, so as part of the prompt I often use a photo from my archive.

Much of the images and texts produced by humans throughout history will be devoured (divourd) by the many artificial intelligences.

This ability of artificial intelligences to make sense of what they “read” or “see” also means that both texts and images will become liquid, that is, infinitely malleable, reconfigurable, reassemblable, palimpsests that are rewritten countless times. The monster, by assuming the role of artist, creates monsters, almost perfect variations of what has already been done or what is.

For all these considerations, I have proposed to build an American bestiary, a game, a divertimento that questions reality and the symbols we use to talk about it. A baroque divertimento.

I question the concepts of art, artifice, artist, creator: we all copy, nobody creates something really original. I am more like a teacher who guides a very clumsy pupil, both cursed and blessed with a perfect memory.

Together with the AI we have set out to generate a portrait of contemporary Latin America, conjuring beings that may only exist in a parallel dimension.

In the Renaissance, bestiaries were used as a way to reflect the complexity and diversity of divine creation. In addition, the figure of the monster was used to symbolize human vices and sins, and later to represent the shadow, the connection with the netherworld or with mystery.

I’ll tell you a secret. The endearing beasts you see in my images are not the monsters. The real ones are the cybernetic constructs with a human appearance, those men and women who pose next to the animals. They wink at us from the other side of the mirror, they want us to think that their essence is human, that they have soul, sense and emotions. They want us to trust them and their creator.

[1] Echeverría, B. (n.d.). La Clave Barroca En América Latina | Ensayos. Bolívar Echeverría, Critical Discourse And Philosophy Of Culture. Retrieved June 12, 2023, from http://bolivare.unam.mx/ensayos/la_clave_barroca_en_america_latina