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Stanford Fellow, Cambridge Artist Talk Art and Generative AI at Harvard Ethics Center Panel

Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics is located at 124 Mount Auburn St.
Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics is located at 124 Mount Auburn St. By Marina Qu
By Madeline E. Proctor and Connor J. Yu, Contributing Writers

Ziv Epstein, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, and Joshua Meyer, a Cambridge artist, discussed the relationship between generative artificial intelligence and art at a Monday panel.

Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, along with the Human Flourishing Program, hosted the event as part of the Safra Center’s Ethics Monday speaker series, which took a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic. Human Flourishing Program postdoctoral research fellow Xavier Symon moderated the event.

While Epstein creates art with generative AI, Meyer relies on a more traditional art form — oil painting.

Epstein completed his Ph.D. at the MIT Media Lab and has experience in leveraging AI in the creation of multi-media art. Epstein has authored papers in Science and Nature, and his art has been featured at The Vienna Museum of Art and Burning Man.

Meyer, who studied at Yale University and The Bezalel Academy, has earned the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, and his paintings have been exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

“What I do is very analog. I’m almost a dinosaur. I paint with oil paints. I make pictures that go one by one to galleries and are seen one by one by viewers,” Meyer said.

Despite growing concerns that AI could replace the need for artists, Epstein and Meyer agreed that AI does not pose an existential threat to traditional art. Rather, they advocated for its use as a tool.

Meyer discussed artist David Salle’s efforts to train AI to mimic his style.

“It’s no different than if I gave up paint today and started using collage, or if I gave it up and started using a camera,” Meyer said.

Epstein mentioned his paper in Science, which examines the ways that “anthropomorphizing” an AI system by giving it human-like properties can shift “credit and responsibility” away from the artist.

Meyer agreed that incorporating AI into art can affect it, but added that “painting is absolutely not replaceable by AI.” For Meyer, art “isn’t a thing,” but “a process of transformation.”

“Art is what happens when a human gets in the way,” he said. “You take an idea, you take an image, you take a thought, and you put a human in the middle.”

Both panelists pointed to examples of new technologies and mediums throughout history, which artists incorporated as tools.

With the advent of photography, Epstein said, “a lot of people were terrified” about “the end of art.”

Not only did painting survive the introduction of photography, he added, but it “changed in really interesting ways,” such as “liberating it from realism and giving rise to Impressionism and the modern art movement.”

“Portrait painters,” however, were “replaced by portrait photographers,” Epstein said.

The subject of Meyer’s paintings are, in fact, people.

“We know about photography. We know there are other modes, and we know about abstraction. We lived through modernism,” Meyer said.

Yet, he added, “We’re still painting people. Why is that?”

The panelists also pointed out the potential financial impact that generative AI could have on artists. Meyer added that some mediums of art are potentially more vulnerable to replacement by AI.

“We just saw a writers’ strike, and this is a central issue. And I don’t want to minimize that. I think illustrators are going to have their professions reevaluated,” Meyer said.

Epstein also touched on the ownership rights of artists, mentioning debates over copyright and fair use as it pertains to AI art.

Symon, the moderator, concluded Monday’s events by calling the discussion “cautiously optimistic” on the future of AI’s presence in art.

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Visual ArtsArtsArtificial Intelligence