The small miracle of AI art: Our relationship with food, memory

One of the installations in the Kol Haot exhibition was a small project based on AI art, conceived by designer and artist Tova Safra.

 Images excerpted from Safra’s ‘recipe for tasting a miracle.’ (photo credit: TOVA SAFRA)
Images excerpted from Safra’s ‘recipe for tasting a miracle.’
(photo credit: TOVA SAFRA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle" - Albert Einstein

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

Albert Einstein

That is the quotation that greeted me as I strolled into Kol Haot in the quaint Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem.  It is a creative project designed to impart Jewish values, texts and history through visual and performing arts. Throughout the recent festival of Hanukkah, Kol Haot ran an immersive pop-up exhibition curated and designed by Eli Kaplan Wildmann, designed to impart Jewish values, texts and history through visual and performing arts. Throughout the recent festival of Hanukkah, Kol Haot ran an immersive pop-up exhibition, with eight installations all centered on the common theme that is usually in the backdrop of our lives but was brought to light during Hanukkah – miracles.

One of the installations in the exhibition was a small project based on AI art, conceived by designer and artist Tova Safra. Art created by artificial intelligence (AI) had recently been shed light on, with programs such as DALL-E and Stable Diffusion bursting into the mainstream audience, inducing extremely polarizing reactions from people all over the spectrum of the Internet, raising serious concerns and loud awe. Something as unfamiliar, alienating and distant from us as AI taking part in one of the most subjective and “humane” activities seems counterintuitive to our nature.

AI art: Machines taking part in one of the most subjective and "humane" activities

Technology is overlaid with greed, corporate use and might. It is the representative of humans’ attempt to cope with nature’s overwhelming trials and our inability to accept our tiny scale in the face of the universe. In its growing advancements, we’ve come to regard it as something that may take over us if it ever gains consciousness. AI is probably the most prevalent and feared example of that, especially with components like deep learning and neural networks, which  are often used in art-based projects. The sheer scale and efficiency seems frightening in comparison to our abilities. But is that all there is to it? And how does all this relate to the Festival of Lights?

Safra’s work is the insurrection to these feelings. Not only Safra but many artists – such as Memo Akten or Mike Tyka – don’t perceive artificial intelligence as something foreign to us but rather as a mirror to our existence as a species. Akten, specifically, describes his work as exploring “the collisions between nature, science, technology, ethics, ritual, tradition and religion, allowing meaningful human control.” It investigates the cultural, social and ethical implications of the development in AI. He likens the desired relationship between humans and machines in his process to that of a film director or video editor, communicating his vision to a “doer” who produces an output under his direction and in a real time setting. What transpires is a closed, immediate response feedback loop, giving rise to answers about fundamental concepts. 

 Tova Safra (credit: TOVA SAFRA) Tova Safra (credit: TOVA SAFRA)

Safra delves into our relationship with food and memory through her visual craft. This thematic journey started during COVID, when she sent a virtual, 3D-rendered cake to her brother in New York, and then went on to implement it in a manner that lets anyone view the hologram of the cake via their phone camera. Safra thought, “There had to be a way to show the care and emotion you put into making food for somebody, not face to face.” She experimented more and more with the concept of food in digital- and AI-based art with the question “How much information do we really need to convey taste?” 

“I don’t think the connections we have with people are limited to those who are sitting right in front of you. You can have them with anyone around the world.”

Tova Safra

“I don’t think the connections we have with people are limited to those who are sitting right in front of you,” she reflects. “You can have them with anyone around the world.”

This brings us to the present day, when Kaplan-Wildmann’s project called for a piece based on the idea of miracles in our lives. Safra answered with a work that used her epicurean-appealing art, generating hundreds of images of desserts in order to connect to our emotional network of associating memories with food. The participant receives a pin with the AI art imprinted on it for keeps. This supposedly low tech, tactile exhibit, according to Safra, was “something where each person gets an individual experience. The technology to generate images based on actual memory wasn’t available, so I had to figure out an analog way of achieving that.” But in my opinion, this only adds to its symbolic strength, relating AI’s inherently distant nature to our more primal connotation with ancient holidays and thoughts about day to day life, such as the tiny wonders happening in our lives: “It’s a statement about the miraculous. What is the smallest unit in your life that can be considered miraculous, and can you be prompted to sit and take a moment to recognize it?” she asks.

“[I was] thinking of just the skin of a fruit, the skin of a fresh lemon that I just picked, the crunchy top of a creme brûlée, really close up. The tiniest things. I’m fortunate enough to see them all the time. I wanted to be able to commemorate that. And it isn’t just one. That’s why there are hundreds of photos here. Hence, the Einstein quote. Realize you are surrounded by them all the time; there are hundreds of thousands of these tiny textures around you all the time that are absolutely miraculous; but because we raise the stakes so high and are looking for huge miracles, we miss all the others,” she explains. 

Safra says that to her, AI is one of those miracles: “When I discovered it, I felt a wondrous feeling.” She embraces AI programs’ sheer scale and efficiency as something exciting for the future. “It has already made creating art openly accessible for everyone.”

The AI technologies we use nowadays, as impressive as they may seem, are still designed by people for people. They use an enormous amount of data to train themselves; and with patterns closely resembling that of the human consciousness, they approach this data in a problem-solving way, constantly reacting to ambiguity in their system, building layers upon layers of memory, sometimes going backwards in its processes, seeming omnisciently impossible; but in reality, it all depends on the training they receive.

But current day image-generating AI doesn’t consist just of magic appearing out of thin air. Behind the smoke and mirrors is the artist, constantly holding a dialogue with the machines. It takes enough effort to craft unique and specific prompts that there is a website called PromptBase for prompters to sell their formulas. Prompts can have anything – from the subject, to the lighting, the amount of abstraction, and even the angle or focal length. “People who don’t use AI to make art assume that AI is making the art for you. It might be different in the future, but today people put a lot of work into the prompts. Art tools in general only have as much meaning as you’re able to imbue them with human emotion in the first place,” Safra says.

With all of the existential debate about AI also comes a much more grounded, hence substantial and valid, legal criticism. With Stable Diffusion spreading as far as the eyes can see, many people have pointed out that its code, and the way it trains itself, is created by taking billions of photos available online into its dataset, comprising hundreds of millions of copyrighted photos, all of which were collected without the consent of the intellectual property owners, in a process called “data mining.” If your work is so much as shared online, it will be found and used in the system. This infringement lies in a legal gray area. Once this case goes to court, God only knows what the verdict will be. Not only that, but artists are complaining that AI recreates their art so accurately at times, that consumers have accused the original art itself of being AI generated. This sitiation manifested itself in an incredibly disrespectful and unethical posthumous gesture when, on October 6, days after legendary Korean illustrator Kim Jung Gi’s untimely death on October 3, a developer named 5you attempted to “resurrect” him by releasing an AI tool that generated images in his iconic style.

“I wished there was a way for me to commemorate the work that went into the photographs that the AI was trained on,” says Safra. “Right now, there is no way to do that, and the founders of OpenAI said there is no provenance; there’s no way to see who actually went in there, and that does bother me. I would rather that this be an appreciation of them rather than plagiarizing them. The counter argument is anybody can go online and imitate a photographer’s work they see and like. I think that there are valid moral concerns, but I don’t go around pretending and saying I made this from scratch; the Internet made this with me. Every photographer out there that has ever taken a picture of a cake made this with me. I think it’s important to say that,” she asserts.

“Think of all the humans. All the human work from the last few decades, somebody made the food, somebody trained in photography to take a picture of it or somebody aided or published it on the Internet afterwards. That’s a lot of beautiful human effort. And I’m happy to be a part of it and not be known as the creator. I think it is a fallacy to say any artist created anything completely on their own. My concern is how do we make this technology more connected to our humanity as opposed to more divorced from it.”

The future of artists has never been so shrouded in uncertainty. However, Safra confidently and boldly claims: “I think that there have been enough technological overhauls in the field of arts and visual design. This is just another one. It’s not the end of the world in terms of creativity and art by any means. People always have and always will be making art.

“I’m going to put a reminder on my calendar a year from now and see if the technology is any closer to giving proper credit to all the photographers and artists that made this one work possible. I’m waiting on it.

“I don’t know if I’m just a techno-optimist, maybe that’s dumb. I’m willing to admit that it might be dumb. As of December 2022, my famous last words might be “This is cool for now.”

IS ALL of this anger toward AI truly because of artists’ intellectual property being at stake here? Or is that judicial argument simply the tip of the psyche of those enraged, essentially disguising a much larger dread that tells of our need to feel special in a conspicuously chaotic world that constantly threatens to leave us behind in its ever-evolving dust?

At the other end of the spectrum, supporters of AI also have a lot of criticism thrown at their arguments, claiming they are stuck in their empty utopian fantasy of technology that can serve as an individualism rejecting escapism to their dissatisfaction with today’s world, asserting AI as a new world order, being unaware of its ability to heavily reinforce and exacerbate current injustices in our society with its huge scale, rendering it absolved of any moral reprehension and losing every shred of empathy in the process. Will either one of those groups even come out on top when all is said or done?

No matter which side you’re on, like Safra we should remain optimistic about the future, and no matter if what comes next will spell doom or salvation for us, we are reminded that we must be thankful for the little miracles in our lives while we have them. The unknown is all the more reason to do so. ■