There is a short story by Kamtanath in the Hindi NCERT textbook called Lac ki Chudiyaan. It is the story of Bablu kaka who crafts handmade bangles using lac. The young narrator has fond memories of Bablu kaka who used to give him small lac marbles to play with and would often feed him mangoes.

Bablu kaka’s bangles were the pride and joy of every bride in the unnamed village and he was himself an affable, well-respected and loved tradesman. As time goes by, the young narrator, caught up in city life, does not visit the village for years.

When he goes back, no longer a child, he finds that Bablu kaka’s thriving business has been affected by ever-increasing competition from factory-made glass bangles, which are cheaper than his labour-intensive lac bangles. The glass bangles are standardised – each no different from the previous batch – and available in a myriad colours.

The narrator laments the effects of industrial progress while praising Bablu kaka’s strength of character. It is a familiar story of the perils of industrialisation, but completely wasted on me as a 12-year-old growing up in New Delhi who lacked context for her world and its history to comprehend such a loss of livelihood and community. I could not imagine life without the factory-made innovations that surrounded me either.

At the time, it seemed like the story wanted me to pick Bablu kaka’s side in the war between progress and tradition, and decry all industrial progress as bad, thus casting myself and everyone around me as the villains responsible for craftspeople losing their jobs.

It was a lot to put on little shoulders and I stubbornly refused the burden. I believed that it was inevitable that some jobs would be lost in the forward march of progress, never once recognising the false dichotomy that was set up.

I have thought about this story a lot ever since artificial intelligence art started garnering attention. On August 29, for instance, a man won first prize for AI-generated art at the Colorado State Fine Arts festival, sparking widespread debate.

AI or art?

In late August, the stable diffusion algorithm for creating images from text prompts was made open source, which makes it free to access and tweak with some basic coding skills. The other two prominent competitors in the space – MidJourney and Dall-E algorithm – are still proprietary but their input-output mechanisms can be accessed for a relatively trivial fee, especially when compared to the human hours required to create similar work.

The results from these AI systems are stunning, and they have a lot of artists rightfully concerned.

It is clear that the availability of cheap, hyperrealistic art will mean fewer opportunities for working artists to make a living. If humans are competing with machines, trying to create output at the same level as automated systems, there is no way a person could win the battle for commissions.

There will, of course, be some artists who incorporate AI into their workflow. Even now, a vast majority of images often need to be photoshopped and edited for the correct details to align with the artist’s vision. Even with that caveat, what will convince the vast majority of paying clients to hire an artist who will take days and weeks to draw out a concept that some algorithms could spit out in minutes?

Man vs machine

Conversations about “AI is coming for your job” inevitably prompt someone to say “humans will always have things to do”. That is true. The industrial revolution happened and people still have jobs. There are ATM machines today, instead of expensive human tellers counting out cash. What the humans get to be instead are programmers that program the machine and maintainers that get to fix them.

What is lost in this is the reflection however is which humans and what jobs. There is no one-to-one congruence between the tellers fired and the programmers hired: those who lost a specific job are not re-skilled for a new one. There are already new types of jobs surrounding these AI art programs – prompt writers, for instance, who sell paragraphs of texts that can be input into these image generation systems to create art of a particular style on a specific platform.

As is often the case with platform-dependent side hustles though, these prompts pay little. Sure, hobbyists who might not have made art for their personal projects might begin to experiment with AI. But it seems more likely that art budgets for games, publications etc will get scaled back further.

Today, there are handicraft preservation schemes where the government sets aside a small sum of money to keep generational traditions of various types of arts and crafts alive. Maybe images will go that way too – in another 50 years, the Department for the Preservation of Handmade Image Art will support a hundred artists each year. The representatives of these arts may survive while the thriving community dies.

The automation of life

AI coming for art feels like the next step in the automation and standardisation of modern life. Many of us do not know where our food comes from, how our clothes are made, and more recently, how our online deliveries get to us. Standardisation makes so much of modern life possible – breaking up tasks into identical chunks that strip them of any individuality.

They turn the worker incidental to the final product.

Technology platforms like Uber (ride sharing), Zomato (food delivery), Urban Company (domestic work) all work by selling the myth of low-cost efficiency and convenience. They cast the person providing the service as the most replaceable part of the whole process, the complication to be automated away.

Thinking about Bablu kaka today, I accept some of that blame. Large corporations successfully turn us into good consumers: through our technology and infrastructure we are trained to only think about the end product without considering those involved in making it. It turns out that we – especially urban residents – have always chased the promise of convenience, if it means that we will get things cheaper, faster and more efficiently.

The dominant economic system under which we live must also be considered. Science fiction writer Ted Chiang in an interview with journalist Ezra Klein said, “Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two. Our fears of technology are actually our fears of capitalism.”

AI in art, like other forms of automation, is at its core the same issue of people vs profits. Capitalism will try to convince artists to take individual action to mitigate the effects of further automation: learn to code, keep upskilling, have you tried AI in your process, and then put the blame on to the victims themselves – maybe you were not creative enough.

The only way out is through worker solidarity. With the lack of any social protections or a basic income that can help sustain life, it becomes more urgent than ever to mobilise, unionise and advocate for policy that puts people over profits.

Divyansha Sehgal is a technology researcher and a Young Leaders in Technology Policy fellow at The Centre for Internet and Society.