Sci fi author Lavie Tidhar: Using Midjourney to explore ethics of AI
Award-winning science fiction author Lavie Tidhar is a busy man. Between his own writing and editing projects, including The Best of World SF anthologies, he works with animator Nir Yaniv on sci-fi film series via their company Positronish, including Mars Machines, about “a toaster and a coffee pot on Mars”, and film noir Loontown. But when Yaniv approached him about yet another project, creating something using the AI image-generation program Midjourney, he said yes – with a few conditions.
The result, Welcome to Your AI Future! – which you can watch below – is an unsettlingly surreal short film, set in a future in which the world has been destroyed, but one human has been found by an apparently well-meaning artificial intelligence, which is keen to help – to the best of its ability.
Alison Flood: Who came up with the idea for your latest project?
Lavie Tidhar: The whole thing started because I have a friend who’s a game designer and he started telling me about Midjourney with great enthusiasm. I thought it was amazing and told Nir to go and play with it. We were very aware of the ethical discussions going on, but we had no intention of doing anything with it.
Then Nir phoned me up. And he said, if we could do something like La Jetée, the French sci-fi film from the 60s, made of single images, that could be kind of interesting. The plot of La Jetée involves a man time-travelling from a post-apocalyptic Paris to our present – it was the inspiration for 12 Monkeys. We just liked the technical aspect of it: can you tell a cinematic story using only still images?
My first reaction was no. Then I thought, what if we use AI tools to make a film about AI – that makes it interesting! I came home and started writing. It’s basically a futuristic AI trying to talk to the last surviving human. My other note was, if we do that, then we have to make sure that the narration is also done by AI. The audio is made up of two AI-generated voices, male and female, that are merged together into a very disconcerting voice.
So every image is a result of Nir asking Midjourney to come up with something related to a scrap from the story, is that how it worked?
Yes. I had to write directions into the shooting script. What sort of images, what sort of feeling they need to evoke. Nir then sat for three whole days and generated 1000s of images. I don’t know how he didn’t go mad. A lot of it was about actually sort of forcing the AI into the right place. I think Nir used himself as a seed image for some images for the human.
We were really leaning into the “uncanny valley” aspect of it. So each image is wrong in some way. My favourite bit is I wrote in these rabbits, where the AI is trying to calm down the human by showing pictures of rabbits. And it’s so disturbing! The idea is that the AI is trying to do its best, but it never quite gets everything right.
What are your concerns around AI? As a writer, do you have worries about it encroaching on your territory?
These AI systems, they don’t have creativity. They have to be directed to do anything, they can’t come up with anything new. I don’t worry about any other writer on the planet, I don’t constantly worry that I’m in competition with the 8 billion people who might be better than me at writing, because the only thing that you can bring to any kind of art is yourself. It’s that unique point of view. And these tools don’t have that.
There are legitimate worries about corporations using AI instead of human artists to save costs. But from a creative perspective, it’s really nothing more than a tool that we got to use and had to really work with it to try to get the effect we needed.
Do you have any plans for other projects like this with Midjourney?
No – but I think it was fun to play with. I thought the result was really interesting and we wanted to jump in on the conversation while it was happening, because it’s moving so fast.
It’s a concern that if you can be replaced with a machine, you will be replaced with a machine. But people said the same thing about the camera. They said the same thing about Photoshop, and we still need artists, and we still need people to bring that unique perspective.
It will take a period of adjustment, but we’re nowhere near the actual general artificial intelligence that we have in the film. I just wanted to talk about – and I see this from AI scientists as well – the idea that AI is going to take over the world and destroy humanity. That seems such a 1970s disaster movie sci-fi version of the future to me. If anything, any evolving AI is going to be so heavily dependent on humans.
So I wanted to talk about the idea of AI just trying to help and maybe getting it catastrophically wrong. The film doesn’t suggest that it was the AI that caused the destruction of the planet. It was people who did that, and the AI kind of just misses them.