"Creativity is the world's greatest recycling program," Scott Belsky, Adobe's Chief Strategy Officer, said in a recent interview with Ben Thompson. Belsky was referring to the fact that creators inspired each other and recombined styles and ideas to create new styles and ideas.
Artificial intelligence is making this process more explicit. People are asking apps like Midjourney and Dall-e to generate images "in the style of Van Gogh" or create mashups between "Harry Potter" and a "Balenciaga documentary."
These technological capabilities opened a can of intellectual property worms. If you're "citing" someone's style, should they get paid? And if they're not, are you breaking the law?
Adobe, the world's largest purveyor of design software, is trying to help creators navigate this new jungle. It recently launched Firefly, an AI-powered image generator that was trained using "Adobe Stock images, openly licensed content, and public domain content where the copyright has expired." By doing so, Adobe strives to ensure that any images Firefly generates will not infringe on anyone's rights. This makes Firefly less risky — and less fun. It works well for generic prompts like "create a metallic background" or "cover this headline with flowers." But it can't draw on the most famous works of art or the latest pop culture memes.
To use an analogy, Adobe Firely is like "Napster" but without copyrighted material. It's legal, and it's clean, but it won't give you what you really want. To give users what they really want, it's not enough to throttle the production of new content; we need new business models that enable people to do whatever they want, legally. To extend the analogy — the world doesn't want a copyright-free Napster; the world wants Spotify and iTunes.
And that's exactly what the world is going to get. As Belsky mentioned during the same (paywalled) interview:
“ One of the things we’re exploring right now is allowing artists to license their style. We talked about prompts and you have to be creative to make a great prompt. Well, imagine at the moment of prompt, having a style library that you can browse and leverage and add to your prompt, and then you pay that creative some small amount or they get some cut of the overall subscription or something to compensate them for the use of their likeness or their style or Mickey Mouse if you’re Disney and you’re licensing people to use it. I do think that there is a method, a Spotify-like approach, that, to your point, leverages the greatness of the Internet, makes it simpler, easier, and legal to use copyrighted content or characters’ likeness in interesting ways."
AI is not just incredible at creating new content; it's also pretty good at figuring out what inspired existing content. Adobe wants to build a new system that tracks the provenance of creative ideas and enables creators to "license their style" and get paid every time it gets used.
This idea sounds familiar. Where have we heard this before?
Two years ago, in NFTs and the Future of Work, I wrote:
“ Technology is on the cusp of enabling us to keep track of every person's economic contribution at a granular level and of and compensating each person for that contribution and all instances at which it ends up being useful.”
What Adobe is currently working on is exactly the kind of stuff that all those annoying NFT developers were experimenting with two years ago. And yes, they were annoying. And there were plenty of grifters. To make things even more confusing, Adobe or its competitors might end up using a blockchain-based solution to implement the new royalty system they have in mind.
This, too, was pretty clear a few years ago, as I pointed out in Don't Show Me the Money:
It's quite possible that web3, the internet of the future, will end up running on completely different technologies and protocols. Or that blockchain protocols will be abstracted away by powerful middlemen that will save users the trouble of knowing anything about the underlying technologies and protocols.
But if you want to understand what people will be doing on the internet in 5-10 years, and if you want to identify new business models before anyone else — you must pay attention to what's happening in crypto.
It's hard to see through the noise, but it's not impossible. Anyone who didn't explore the business models pioneered during the crypto/Web3 book missed out on many important insights.
And yes, I'm a bit biased. At the end of the day, when there's a gold rush, I sell shovels. People always want to learn about the hot new thing. But sometimes, you win even if you don't find gold. Sometimes, the shovel is the gold. What you learn today helps you understand and respond to what will happen tomorrow — even if no one had any idea what that specific tomorrow would look like.
And the intersection between crypto and AI does not end with media royalties. Many of the problems that (serious) crypto projects aimed to solve will become more acute with the adoption of AI — figuring out the provenance of digital content, enabling users to own their personal data, providing stable income to creators, redistributing the profits of digital platforms, aligning the incentives of online swarms, enabling machines to pay each other for services and information, generating smart contracts that and enabling users to govern the digital platforms they depend on.
It's no coincidence that Sam Altman, the founder of OpenAI and co-creator of ChatGPT and Dall-e, is also the man behind Worldcoin — a blockchain protocol that aims to help humans prove they're actually humans and build financial infrastructure for a world in which fewer people need to work:
[Worldcoin's] identity layer will enable humans to distinguish other humans from advanced AI online and lays the foundation for global, digital identity to empower individuals and enable organizations. Combined with the financial layer, it enables to distribute wealth, and build the infrastructure for AI-financed global, non-state UBI.
This might sound crazy. But Sam is as passionate about it as he is about OpenAI. And if recent history taught us anything, it's that today's crazy is tomorrow's new normal.
Come learn with me. The inaugural cohort of Practical AI begins next month. We'll learn to use the coolest new tools and dive into where things are headed and what are the implications are for your industry and career.