New Week #104
Should artists be paid when their work is used to train an AI generative model? The UN says we won't limit global warming to the 1.5C target. Plus more news and analysis from this week.
Welcome to the mid-week update from New World Same Humans, a newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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Hello from London! It’s late on a Friday evening; this is not a sensible time to be sending out the newsletter. I’m stretching the definition of mid-week update beyond breaking point.
But the future never stops, and neither does New World Same Humans. I promised a bumper instalment this week. What’s in store?
Shutterstock announce an innovative partnership with OpenAI’s text-to-image generator DALLE-E 2. It offers a way forward on the thorny question of payment for artists whose work is used to train AI models.
Also, a new UN report says that limiting global warming to 1.5C is now close to impossible. And a backlash against metaverse hype is gathering steam inside the Tech Industrial Complex.
Let’s get into it.
🖼 New model art
This week, developments in the emerging battle between artists and those who own generative AI models.
Stock photography giant Shutterstock announced a new partnership with OpenAI. The platform will directly integrate OpenAI’s text-to-image generator DALL-E 2, allowing users instantly to create images that they can use themselves or make available to others. Image creators on Shutterstock earn a share of revenue whenever a subscriber to the platform downloads their work.
Crucially, Shutterstock will also launch a Contributor’s Fund, which will pay image creators when their work is sold to OpenAI to train its generative models.
That marks the first attempt by the creators of a popular AI model to address the increasingly acute questions around acknowledgement — and remuneration — of artists whose work informs the model’s output.
CNN this week ran an an interview with Erin Hanson, an artist whose work was used to train the text-to-image tool Stable Diffusion. That tool can now replicate Hanson’s style so effectively that even the artist herself says of its attempts: ‘oh wow, I would put that on my wall’. Stable Diffusion just raised $101 million at a $1 billion valuation.
This issue doesn’t apply only to visual arts. The Recording Industry Association of America this week warned that AI music generators, trained on copyrighted work, pose a threat to the livelihood of musicians and songwriters.
⚡ NWSH Take: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman admits that a huge tranche of Shutterstock data — which the company purchased last year — helped train DALL-E. Essentially, the creators of those images helped train an AI tool that they’ll now be competing against directly on the platform. It’s right that, in future, Shutterstock contributors are paid when their work is used in this way. // But we’re still a long way from a comprehensive answer. Stable Diffusion can churn out a million and one Erin Hanson works good enough to impress the artist herself. It’s not credible to suggest that this has no impact on Hanson’s ability to sell reproductions of her work. And at the moment, her cut of any potential earnings? It’s zero. We could say the same about thousands of others whose work helped train Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and DALL-E. // But this doesn’t have to be a bad news story for creators. In fact, quite the opposite. If some thorny issues — both technical and subjective — can be solved around judging to what extent a particular artist’s work helped inform a particular output of a model, then these models can become a whole new revenue stream for artists. Imagine a model trained on Picasso’s work, with revenues flowing to the late artist’s estate. Or a music generator trained on the output of Ludovico Einaudi; how many dreamy car ads would be soundtracked by the outputs of such a model, and how many millions of dollars would accrue to Einaudi? // Regular readers already know that I’m obsessed with the generative model revolution and its implications. Artists, meanwhile, deserve to be paid for their work. Stable Diffusion and others should take a lead from OpenAI and Shutterstock’s first draft attempt at an answer. There are deals to be done, here, that work for everyone.
🌊 Only adapt
For a while now this newsletter has been exploring the idea that the 1.5C target, which shapes international policy on global warming, is already unattainable. This week, more news.
A new UN report looked at the emissions cuts needed to limit warming to 1.5C against those already pledged by governments. It concluded that ‘there is no credible pathway to 1.5C in place’.
Instead, said the researchers, current pledges would deliver a 1.8C world. And given that those pledges are not being kept, even that target doesn’t look achievable. Global emissions would need to almost halve to give us a chance of 1.5C; Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, calls that ‘a tall, some would say impossible, order’.
In a brilliant long read in The New York Times this week, climate journalist David Wallace-Wells argues that a new consensus is emerging: we can expect a world somewhere between 2C and 3C hotter $. What does that look like? Here’s Wallace-Wells quoting the economist Nicholas Stern on a 2C world:
⚡ NWSH Take: A tall, some would say impossible, order; it’s the first time I’ve heard a UN representative use the i word in relation to the 1.5C target. It’s a powerful signal of the emerging consensus Wallace-Wells articulated this week; the likely reality now is somewhere between 2C and 3C. // That means we’ll need to adapt to the migrations, conflicts, and human suffering that is coming: think hundreds of millions, for a start, migrating to the Global North. But adaptation doesn’t mean giving up on mitigation; there’s a vast difference between two and three degrees of warming, and we must do everything we can to stay close to the former. // On that front, there are reasons to be cheerful. As Wallace-Wells points out, just a few years ago we were on course for 5C. Thanks to collective action since then, we’ve pretty much eradicated that possibility; our efforts have halved projected warming. Solar and wind energy have both become vastly more cost efficient across the last ten years; this week China announced yet another vast offshore wind farm — this one will power more than 13 million homes. // To stay as close to 2C as possible we need to renew out efforts on emissions; we’ll see what next week’s COP 27 brings. But admitting that 1.5C is close to impossible allows for a new possibility: deep thought, followed by action, to adapt to the convulsion that is ahead.
🗺 Promised lands
There’s been no shortage of metaverse hype across the last 12 months, and this newsletter has watched closely. But this week, there were clear signals that a metaverse backlash is going mainstream among technologists and tech watchers alike.
Oculus founder Palmer Luckey made headlines when he criticised Meta’s core VR environment, Horizon Worlds: ‘I don’t think it’s a good product. Its not good; it’s not fun’. Luckey sold the Oculus VR hardware platform — on which Horizon is built — to Meta for $1 billion in 2014.
That came as Meta’s share price dived 24% this week, after the company reported lower than projected earnings for its third quarter. That prompted many to argue that the Zuck’s pivot around the metaverse was a giant error.
A counter argument to all this metaverse cynicism? Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz took to Twitter this week to compare our journey into the metaverse with our journey to the Moon in the mid 20th-century. Abovitz says that when it comes to the metaverse — or XR, which is short for extended reality — we’re currently in the Gemini era.
In other words, we’re in a functional middle phase, in which the technology remains clunky and sometimes doesn’t quite works as it should. But we need to go through this to get to an Apollo era in which the dream is realised. Abovitz reckons technology developments will deliver that phase some time around 2028.
The question, of course, is who is right? The metaverse dreamers, or the metaverse naysayers?
⚡ NWSH Take: Metaverse cynicism isn’t new, and intelligent incarnations of it have acted as a useful counterweight against the hype of the last 24 months. But this week it became clear that two big camps are emerging inside the Tech Industrial Complex, which includes Big Tech, startups, and adjacent media. At their most extreme (and the public square loves extremity) those two camps are the metaverse is everything and the metaverse is nothing. // Two weeks ago, back in New Week #102, I wrote about the epic scale of Mark Zuckerberg’s $70 billion bet on the metaverse. I understand the perspective of those who say that bet is radically misplaced; that the Zuck has set a course to nowhere. But while things look difficult right now, I’m inclined to a position something closer to that expressed this week by Abovitz. Yes, there’s a lot to figure out. But virtual worlds make possible experiences that you simply can’t have via a screen, and I can’t help but think transformational use cases are lurking in that truth somewhere, waiting to be found. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Meta — or any other big player — will be the ones to find them. But I wouldn’t bet against the dream that is metaverse just yet.
🗓️ Also this week
👁 The EU is moving closer to a ban on facial recognition technology in public spaces. The liberal Renew group of EU representatives have joined the Greens and Socialists & Democrats to back such a ban; they will face opposition from the centre-right European People’s Party, which saws police should be able to use facial recognition.
🛰 Activists are smuggling Starlink satellite internet terminals into Iran. The Islamic Republic is seeking to limit access to the internet in an attempt to suppress a popular uprising. The uprising was sparked by the police murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested because her headscarf was not covering her hair.
📱Dating app Bumble open-sourced an AI that it uses to detect unsolicited nude pictures. In a press release Bumble said ‘it’s our hope that the feature will be adopted by the wider tech community as we work in tandem to make the internet a safer place.’
🏔 Virgin Media O2 are working on a network of drones that will fly permanently around the peaks of the UK’s Snowdonia mountain range. The drones will provide mobile connectivity, and local mountain rescue officials say this will prove a ‘game changer’ for lost climbers.
🏙 Singapore says it will reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The country had previously said only that it hoped to achieve this target. Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said emissions will peak in 2030 and decline thereafter.
👾 New research suggests that children who play video games perform better in some tests of cognitive ability. Since 2018, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study has been tracking the development of thousands of US children from birth. New research leveraging data from the ABCD suggests children who play 21 hours of video games a week or more perform better than those who play no video games on tests that measure attention, impulse control, and memory.
🚀 NASA launched a new study of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), more popularly known as UFOs. A team, which includes astrobiologists, genetics experts, and the former astronaut Scott Kelly, will reexamine evidence relating to UAPs stretching back decades. This year saw the first US Congressional hearing on UAPs in over 50 years, at which Pentagon officials admitted they have no explanation for a handful of UAPs despite their best efforts to understand them.
🌍 Humans of Earth
Key metrics to help you keep track of Project Human.
🙋 Global population: 7,984,204,120
🌊 Earths currently needed: 1.7914662097
💉 Global population vaccinated: 62.5%
🗓️ 2022 progress bar: 82% complete
📖 On this day: On 29 October 1969 the first ever computer-to-computer link is established on ARPANET, a project of the US Department of Defence.
Thanks for reading this week.
The ongoing collision between AI generative models and human creativity is yet another case of new world, same humans.
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I’ll be back next week. Until then, be well,
P.S Huge thanks to Nikki Ritmeijer for the illustration at the top of this email. And to Monique van Dusseldorp for additional research and analysis.