Side Note

An AI-generated portrait sold for half a million dollars and now I’m terrified of the future

Meet Edmond de Belamy, your new worst nightmare.

Last week, Christie’s offered up for auction a portrait titled “Edmond de Belamy,” estimating that it would sell for around $7,000 to $10,000. I assume this is a fair-ish market price for an artsy portrait of an obscure French guy painted onto a high-quality canvas sitting in a gilded wooden frame, created by an artist no one has ever heard of, marked up a few grand by dint of it being for sale at Christie’s. Contrary to the auction house’s expectations, however, the painting sold for $432,500. This has a lot to do with the fact that Edmond de Belamy never existed, and instead is the result of a group of computer programmers feeding 15,000 different portraits into an algorithm, which then spat out Edmond, along with ten members of his made-up family.

As an uncultured rube, it’s not up to me to comment on the actual quality of a piece of AI-generated art. But I do wonder what, exactly, the people who bid on the portrait thought made “Edmond de Belamy” so valuable. It wasn’t the scarcity of the piece itself or the labor that went into it — presumably, the algorithm that spat Edmond out could create an unlimited number of similar portraits, and unlike human portraiture the AI didn’t have to deal with the physical toll of keeping a steady hand or concentrating on a consistent vision for the work. Was it just that they wanted to be the first person to buy a piece of AI-generated art at Christie’s? Again, I am not steeped in the art world, but my gut instinct tells me “yes” on this one.

Additionally, the fact that an AI-generated artwork fetched such a handsome price creates some interesting questions about the future of humanity as we know it. Some scholars have posited that since copyright law is premised upon acknowledging the human effort and ingenuity that went into a work’s creation, granting copyright privileges to an AI would be tantamount to giving it legal personhood. And if that’s the case, once humans manage to create even more sophisticated AIs than what we’ve got now, will those non-living beings become humans in the eyes of the law? Like, will it be murder to unplug an AI even if it’s creeping you out or, I don’t know, creating little drone bees that are stinging you while you’re trying to mow your lawn? These are questions that might seem a little silly now, but they may very well be the ones that dog us in the future.