23rd July 2021. AI | Cycling

The art in AI images; racing on Zwift

Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to publish daily, five days a week. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.

#1: The art in AI images

I’ve been doing some work recently on intellectual property, and one of the live issues in the IP community is the status of works created by AIs/machine learning.

In the UK, copyright exists automatically through the act of creation—you don’t need to register your work. 

But if the creator is a piece of AI, or a machine learning algorithm? It’s not at all clear yet whether the copyright resides in the creator of the algorithm, or the person who ran (and likely tweaked) the program, or whether such works attract copyright protection at all. The law’s not currently clear, and the program, at least on the face of it, is doing more than a paintbrush or a word processor.

Image courtesy The Big Sleep (source) @advadnoun on Twitter)

I reflected on this because Ian Christie sent me a link to some rather smart visual works created by an algorithm. The post was by James Gurney, and he reports on a program that takes text and turns it into images. As Gurney says:

it's a new category of image, made by computer software drawing from big data sets. 

(source: @ak92501 on Twitter)

Obviously, the images emerge the way they do from the “prompts”, or source text:

Some of the creativity of this enterprise derives from the odd juxtapositions of the words in the prompts. The results are often effective with long prompts. The phrase for the image above is “a small hut in a blizzard near the top of a mountain with one light turn on at dusk trending on artstation | unreal engine”

In recent weeks, people writing prompts realized you can get the system to yield a more detailed style if you say "trending on artstation." 

Gurney expects that over time, these images will be accepted as art, and the creators—here the people who find the most creative prompts—will be considered as the artists.

But he still has some misgivings:

As a viewer, I'm not quite sure how to respond emotionally to something that looks like art, but which didn't pass through a human consciousness.

As an artist, I'm not worried about my job. Maybe it's a vain hope, but I feel like people will always want to see images made by a human hand and filtered through a human brain rather than one made by an unfeeling machine. The question is whether eventually we'll be able to tell the difference.

There are also some resources at the end of the post if you want to know more. 

#2: Racing on Zwift

It’s only a few days since the Tour de France ended, and I’m missing it already. So my attention was drawn back to an article by Hannah Nicklin—both a games developer and a racing cyclist—on how Zwift is designed to emulate cycling but with some clever gamers’ tweaks mixed in. It’s part of a longer ebook collection of articles on ‘play during the pandemic’. 

For people who haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, Zwift is a software program that connects to smart connected bike turbo trainers, and emulates cycle riding and racing. As Nicklin points out, it’s an e-sport, but most of the participants don’t know that: 

Zwift is an e-sport largely engaged with by people who have little-to-no knowledge about e-sports, and which few e-sports people have heard about. E-sports (for those of you outside of video games) are multiplayer videogames with a clear ‘win’ condition, that people play competitively, and to a professional level. They are most often played using consoles or PCs and handheld controllers. Zwift, on the other hand, is played by pedalling.

(Image by George Williams/flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Like many others, Nicklin started using Zwift during lockdown. She’d been sceptical before: the cyclist’s prejudice is that Zwift produces riders with lots of power but no bike handling skills, since the bike is locked on to the turbo trainers. 

But actually doing it made her wonder about the mechanics of it: What makes Zwift compelling?

Here’s the answer I came up with: dramatic irony...

In playwriting, screenwriting, etc., dramatic irony is the offering of knowledge to the audience which the characters in the world of the work are not aware of. In Romeo & Juliet the audience know that Juliet has feigned her death with a powerful sleeping draft, but the broken-hearted teen Romeo does not... Dramatic irony allowed me to think through the differential knowledge which keeps the tension “on”, and makes the storytelling of each space and mode of participation effective. 

So what’s happening in Zwift is a series of gaps, which are exploited by the game design.

There’s a continuum here, for spectators, from the world of “real” racing through watching on television through racing on Zwift. Physical spectators at a race see almost nothing—a moment—but it’s a carnival. Television spectators enjoy nothing of that, but see much more, with commentators and data filling it out. 

 In Zwift, she suggests, we are the racers—and our bodies are producing the data that drives the Zwift experience. The riders are riding, but they’re also spectators as well. 

In participating in a Zwift race you blend a lower-stakes bodily experience (and lack of being able to “read” your competitors’ body language and expressions) with a greater “big picture” view of your and their data. So you bodily know the exertion, the effort, but as well as your data (lived and visualised), you see their data—you see a “big picture” of the virtual presence of the other riders from around the world, in their distance from you, and their watts-per-kilogram. 

For Nicklin, though, this was an emotional experience—part of her process of learning to live in the new conditions of lockdown, a way of connecting the physical and the virtual:

Zwift was a new and achievable challenge. It gave me a comprehensible and swift learning curve to navigate. It gave me a connection in breath and sweat to people around the world, and a reason to talk to my loved ones in a comfortable, adjacent manner. And it gave my listless days a structure, my body a means of completing the stress-response cycle in a world with a sudden, huge, unwieldy, stressor, which made everything feel incomprehensible. The data gave me an anchor, my body a weight in the world.

And in our digital age, we need these bridges between the physical and the virtual worlds. From that point of view, Zwift is a perfect 21st century proposition. 

There’s also an interview with Nicklin about the article on the Service Course podcast—cued from here

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