Artillery Row

AI will not satisfy

Human desires tend to be rooted in the human

Will AI influencers replace real influencers? Will AI porn stars replace real porn stars? Will AI artists replace real artists? Will AI girlfriends replace real girlfriends? Will, in other words, AI fulfil a great swathe of our human desires? If you read the papers, you might be forgiven for thinking that within ten years, most people — and almost all men — will be hooked up to their computers and being fed crushed doritos through a tube.

I’m sure there is some extent to which this will be true. There is no one more tedious than the commentator who shrugs and sneers at all technological change, as if human culture has not evolved since Gutenberg had a smart idea for extending his library.

Still, I doubt that AI will soon become a substitute for human entertainment and interaction for most of us. In fact — it could actually drive us back to more organic forms of cultural and social life.

Still, I doubt that AI will soon become a substitute for human entertainment and interaction

This might sound like a completely inexplicable change of subject but I’m a pro-wrestling fan. For about a hundred years, people in the wrestling business behaved as if the outcomes of their performances were not predetermined. To be sure, a lot — if not most — of the fans had a sense that some things were not entirely legitimate. In his book The Squared Circle, David Shoemaker quotes a 1932 New Yorker article that commented, “If this be play-acting then it is play-acting of the highest order.” But the fans still clung to the idea that there were still elements of competition and hostility involved. 

When the pretence of realism was dropped — as the Internet and modern TV made it all but impossible for it to be maintained — a lot of fans drifted away, to competitive combat sports or to something else entirely. Indeed, entertainment that provides stories from behind the scenes of professional wrestling — like the Vice series The Dark Side of the Ring or innumerable podcasts from industry veterans — have almost as many fans as the real thing. As much as there will always be a place for superhero films and erotic fiction, people often like to have some truth with their fantasy.

This is not always the case. A friend pointed me towards Instagram accounts where hundreds of thousands of people follow “AI models”. More disturbingly, as Octavia Sheepshanks has written for The Critic, depraved men have been creating AI-generated child sexual abuse material on an industrial scale.

But I think these will remain marginal — if grim-to-appalling — phenomena. 

Let’s begin with art and entertainment. Sure, I would feel very anxious now if I was a professional graphic designer — and I’m an opinion columnist, of all things. But I doubt that AI will ever conquer art. The first reason for my pro-human optimism is ironic. We love to say that we should separate the artist from the art when we want an excuse to read William Burroughs or watch Chris Benoit matches. But we don’t tend to go all the way. We invest ourselves in the work of bands, novelists et cetera because we like what they create but also because the investment of our interest and emotions in their artistic process roots them in a human context (as well, of course, as signalling something about ourselves). I struggle to imagine many people saying, “Yes, I’m a fan of this AI band.” 

Secondly — and more rose-tinted glassedly — I think AI will struggle to create that which is compellingly new. Art is always being nudged along in slightly, strikingly different directions. Will AI — learning from that which already exists — do the same with the same effect? Perhaps it will. But I’m sceptical.

Will AI replace the human objects of our attraction? Again, perhaps. But I can’t see it happening at scale. This is because of a romantic attachment to what Philip Larkin called our “almost-instinct”, yes. But it is also the result of what I think is a hard-nosed assessment of desire. Even man’s saddest fantasies tend to be rooted in what he wishes was true about his real-world life. He might have a 0.1% chance of meeting — let alone dating — that e-girl on the other side of the world. But it could technically happen. The massive success of OnlyFans, in a world where free porn is almost inescapable, speaks to this sad misdirected desire for human contact. 

This is especially true of romantic relationships. Perhaps you’re sceptical about the transcendent quality of love. But even a cynic has to appreciate that romance — even friendship — is also rooted in a desire to be acknowledged as worthy of affection. AI could mimic that, of course — but convincingly? Consistently? Perhaps at the point where AI becomes indistinguishable from real life. But then all distinctions are moot.

I think it is at least possible that the manipulative unreal nature of artificially generated entertainment and personalities will inspire a return to more traditional means of cultural and social existence  — not entirely, of course, but to some extent. If I were to binge on candy floss I wouldn’t want to look at anything sweet again for months. After reading about “AI girlfriends”, meanwhile, even I want to log off.

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