Sometime in the late eighties, sifting through comics, I came across an old, worn copy of ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ circa 1950. On its cover was a robot, then-unfamiliar to me, offering a wounded man in its hand. Its eyes blank and red, but human. The robot’s expression one of quiet disbelief—incapable of processing any emotion to reflect the harm it may have just caused.
How could it care? It's a robot. Several years later I would realize the illustration by Frank Kelly Freas was adapted as cover art for Queen’s 1977 album, News to the World. The image illustrated the short story ‘The Gulf Between’ by Tom Godwin, which tells of a future society in which robots can be doctors or pilots, but always obeying the rule: "A machine is constructed to obey commands; it does not question those commands.” The story concludes with a man trapped in a spaceship, gaining speed as he spirals through space, unable to tell the robot keeping him sedated to stop the aircraft. The moral of the story according to Tom: "Machines are the servants of humans, never their equals. There will always be a gulf between flesh and steel. Read those five words on the panel before you and you will understand.”
What five words?
A machine does not care.
Today, I can’t help but recognize the parallels between this story and what it can often feel like as a creative in our industry. Spiraling forward, faster every year into the latest and greatest technologies, programs and capabilities—simultaneously hanging on for dear life to what it means to be a creative, as our collective spaceships carry us along. With the inevitable emergence of AI, and the number of questions it raises for the future of our business, I have found myself spiraling through space with the question: How will AI impact our craft?
Crafting my work, no matter the medium, has always given me the opportunity to feel closer to my creative idols. Creative north stars that give me reason to take pride in my creative processes. From the line quality of Egon Shiele or Bill Watterson to David Carson’s depth with layers—Cy Twombly’s ability to make order out of chaos and the clever, graphic, a-ha solves of Saul Bass—it is practice and time that sharpen my craft to create work I can be just as proud of.
That said, what does AI generated art, design and writing mean for the future of our creative fields? Our expertise. What about illustrators? Graphic designers? What about photographers? Writers? Painters? Sculptors? Architects?
On one hand, there’s excitement around AI’s capacity to make creative work more accessible. Immediately, AI offers those who may feel less creatively inclined an opportunity to explore their own creative curiosities. Shortcutting through the time-suck of production timelines, the robot drops us gently from his palm onto a pedestal as curators and editors—our new form empowering us, alongside AI, to fulfill our creative visions. On the other hand, with such creative capacity in the hands of anyone, it requires us to rethink what it means be a creative and what makes us, and our once differentiating individual expertise, valuable in the first place. How can we integrate AI into our creative processes while maintaining the humanity in our work?
As I cautiously approach the creative tar-pits, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the designasaur in the room. The designasaur: an endearing term my elder-millennial colleagues and I threw around arrogantly at the design generations before us who couldn’t possibly handle how advanced our capabilities were with the latest technology and programs. Hip to all the right trends, styles and tones to create work only possible with the latest tools at our disposal, technology and time were on our side. However, we were relentlessly ignorant and unaware the fear of staying relevant would be coming for us all.
But one doesn’t become a designasaur without picking up a few bits of wisdom along the way—there is a gulf of difference between flesh and steel.
Like Tom Godwin said, a machine is constructed to obey commands; it does not question those commands. Because, news to the world, it’s the humanity, emotion and care we put in our craft that connects with audiences to engage with the painting on the wall, the words on the page, or the commercial on the device.
So, I continue to wonder: How will AI impact our craft? The answer may lie in our perspective, viewing AI less as a threat—crushing our collective crafts in the palm of its iron-giant hand and like a futuristic Johnny Appleseed, distributing the tiny, remaining pieces of expertise to anyone with a computer—and embracing it more as a helpful partner, editor and co-creator there to accelerate our abilities to realize creative solutions in incredible new places.
As you re-read the words in the panel illustration above, remember this: A machine may not care, but, creatives do.