Imagine a world where we value one another not for how hard we work or the skills we have or the time we’ve spent building them, but for our unique perspective and how that perspective resonates with others. A world where expression is unconstrained by the limits of our physical abilities or technical expertise, and liberated from our self-doubt.
Would you like to live there? In a GenAI future where anyone can be a painter, a musician, or a poet, maybe that world will exist.
That’s the hope of our first guest for Season Two of Creativity Squared, Claire Silver. Claire is an anonymous artist who rose to fame from humble beginnings and through significant adversity by finding her artistic voice with the help of generative artificial intelligence. She’s been collaborating with A.I. to make art since 2018, finding success in the NFT community and later seeing her pieces sold at Sotheby’s London, alongside works by the likes of Damien Hirst and Banksy. Last year, she collaborated with Emi Kusano and Gucci to develop a stunning collection of physical and digital artwear NFTs for Christie’s New York. Her pieces have been exhibited in galleries, museums, and festivals around the world, and she’s been featured in The New York Times, WIRED, Fortune, NPR, and countless podcasts.
She’s a deep thinker and is vocal in her belief that the rise of A.I. has ushered in a new paradigm, replacing the barrier of skill with taste.
Claire discusses her origin story, how A.I. changed the trajectory of her life by providing her a vehicle for expression despite a chronic illness, and why she believes in radical accessibility to A.I. art tools. She also shares her thoughts on transhumanism, and how artists can find their unique signature. You’ll also discover what qualia is and how Claire sees it as AGI’s litmus test, how she aims to evoke the sensation of qualia in her art, and the power of touchstone experiences.
Claire didn’t grow up with access to the world of fine art that she operates in now.
Her rags-to-riches story began in a dilapidated farmhouse in rural America, relying on government assistance to survive because for her family to make more than f $12,000 per year would jeopardize her father’s access to life-sustaining medication for a severe disability.
She graduated in a class of 30 people, all of whom statistically had only a six percent chance of finding a better life than their parents. Under those circumstances, she says that art school wasn’t an option even though she enjoyed art at the time. She went to a state college, got good grades, and went on to work in a field completely unrelated to what she does now. Statistically, she beat the odds.
However, her life took a turn when she developed a chronic illness that robbed her ability to work and do most other things as well. She says that she “moped around being sad and on the internet” for a few years before she decided to start painting. She made her earliest works by pouring cups of layered acrylic paint onto a canvas. At the same time, she was watching Westworld, the sci-fi TV series where A.I. humanoids cater to humans’ every desire and started to imagine a world where A.I. could solve for illnesses like hers.
Continuing her art journey, she soon discovered a website called Artbreeder, a pre-text-to-image A.I. art generator where users could input a collection of images and generate countless derivative variations. Artbreeder was more accessible than other models at the time because it did not require any programming knowledge. She says she quickly became obsessed, generating 30 to 40 thousand images in the course of one sleepless week. It was the start of her career as we know it today, one that allowed her to fulfill her dream of buying her mom a house, travel outside the United States for the first time, and go on to employ a team of people.
But at the time, the ability to create art with just her imagination provided something more profound than the fame and fortune that came after. For Claire, finding A.I. was finding a way to express the inner self she’d cultivated for years in the boredom and isolation of her childhood and a way to do it despite the physical limitations of her chronic illness.
A.I. swept away the physical and socioeconomic barriers that stood between Claire and artistic expression. As GenAI becomes more integrated with society, Claire hopes that the mental barriers of insecurity and self-doubt will fall by the wayside as well, empowering us all to unleash our inner artists.
From the 40,000 images that Claire generated with Artbreeder in her first week of experimentation, she ended up publishing (a.k.a “minting”) only one of them as an NFT. To get there, she had to make thousands of decisions about what images resonated with her most. She says that the process is not just about learning your taste but learning yourself.
Today, she doesn’t hold herself to any one aesthetic. Her work varies from photorealism, abstract, and anime-inspired to deeply conceptual pieces. Her process can vary just as much. For one piece she might physically paint a number of canvases, photograph them, and use the photos to train a custom A.I. model that generates variations from which she’ll select the one that gets published. Another piece might simply be the output from a prompt in Midjourney. For her artswear collection with Gucci, she sculpted digital figurines that she then adorned in collages of abstract A.I. art.
Yet she says that there is a thread that runs through her work so somebody could identify one of her pieces as hers even if she doesn’t put her name on it.
She believes that everyone has their own touchstone experiences, emotional memories of a time and place that feels alive for them, memories that they might want to recreate through art if they had the skills and confidence to do so.
For Claire, that touchstone is a memory from her youth, climbing up to sit and think on the roof of her family’s farmhouse, surrounded by beautiful oak trees swaying in the autumn wind. That slice of life doesn’t exist anymore. The roof is mostly caved in, the trees are gone, and her body is elsewhere. But it still exists in her mind, the time and place that once made her feel alive she now keeps alive in her memories. That’s the essence of what she tries to capture in her work, not the specific memory itself, but all of the feelings, emotions, and nostalgia that such memories evoke in us. Collaborating with A.I. allows her to explore and express those touchstones.
Even for people without a chronic illness or disability, though, spending the time and dedication to learn an art form just to express something in their mind is a tall order. So many of us may feel like what we have to share isn’t worth the effort, or have simply come to believe for one reason or another that we aren’t “artistic.”
GenAI can change all that. Claire shares a story about helping somebody overcome that self-doubt with the help of Dall-E during her first exhibition with Accelerate Art, a nonprofit supporting emerging artists that she founded with Ben Roy.
There was a security guard there, and on the third day of [the exhibition], he said, “I really love all of this work, I really love looking at it. I always wanted to make art, but I can’t even draw a stick figure.” And he’s like 45, strong-looking and probably has a fine life. But it’s amazing to me that that came out of him; this insecure, smaller kind of voice admitting something maybe he hadn’t said out loud. And I said, “Well, let’s make a DALL-E image together right now on my phone. He didn’t know what it was. But he said okay, and so I pulled it up and asked him to describe a scene. I typed it in and then I pressed generate. And it was an image that I never would have made or thought to have made. It wasn’t mine, it was his. It was a guy that ended up looking quite a lot like him, standing in the rain at night in Times Square. And all of the neon lights were reflecting around him. And it was this very contemplative, singular kind of moment. And he saw it, and he got emotional. He lit up like a Christmas tree, he was so happy. And then he was kind of choked up. And then he said, “Can you send it to me? I can’t wait to show my wife when I get home. I have never made anything. It’s amazing.” And I’m so interested in what people, who haven’t been able to access the tools of expression, have to say when given the tools to do so. I feel like, my God, the new perspectives that will come to the world when people that never had access to the tools of expression like this, or had the time or the ability, are able to.
Moments like those are why Claire advocates for radical accessibility to open-source GenAI. She’s passionate about the idea that A.I. will help more people express their inner selves through art, and she believes that more expression will lead to greater connection over the intrinsic human qualities that we all have in common but don’t always share. She also hopes that A.I. will narrow the gaps in skill and abilities that form the hierarchies of our society, allowing us to enter a new world where our value lies in how our experiences resonate with others.
She says that prioritizing our basic humanness will be even more important in the decades to come as humans and technology become even more intertwined.
Claire’s favorite piece in her portfolio is Shores of Immortality, a 3D digital sculpture that’s part of her Artifacts collection. The collection explores how A.I. will change the trajectory of human life.
Claire describes Shores of Immortality as a 3D kaleidoscope of people from various time periods stacked on top of each other, each row of humans struggling to hold up the next generation, with the earliest ones being crushed at the bottom of the pile by the weight of their successors. On top, a woman is holding out two children, offering them the opportunity to step off the pile of bodies across the open air to a staircase that leads to unknowable heights.
Claire sees the way that A.I. is advancing and predicts that it will help us address inequality, fight the painful effects of aging, and even help us communicate with other species. She’s not oblivious to the harm that A.I. can cause, she describes herself as a caveman painting fire in the sense that fire is a tool. It can heat your home or burn it down. The determining factor is how it’s used and with how much caution.
As A.I. becomes more integrated with our lives, Claire believes that the technology will eventually become integrated with our bodies as well. She sees transhumanism, or augmenting the human body and mind with technology, as an inevitability. In fact, the process has already begun. Just this week, Elon Musk announced that his company, Neuralink, successfully implanted the first computer chip in a human brain. Transhumanists believe that one day humans and technology will be so closely intertwined that we will engineer our own evolutionary step forward to become something other than homosapiens.
Claire considers herself a conditional transhumanist. She acknowledges the transhumanist trajectory we’re on already, and sees the potential benefits, but also has concerns especially when it comes to how we integrate technology with our brains. She says she’s in favor of mostly all augmentations to the body, such as a 3D printed heart.
When it comes to the brain, though, Claire is worried about technology creep causing an existential identity crisis for humans. She says it’s like the Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Is a wooden ship still the same ship if, after years of maintenance, every original board on the ship has been replaced? If it’s not the same ship, then at what point did it become a different ship? When 50 percent of the boards were replaced? When the last board was replaced? There’s no correct answer. You could ask the same questions about augmenting our brains with technology. Is there a theoretical point of tech integration where our brains become something different than what they are now? It’s impossible to say how the technology will advance and how we will react individually or collectively. Claire hopes that any tech intervention involving the human brain would stop short of the point where we become more machine than human, but how do we make that distinction? If foundation models know everything that humans have ever known, right down to the complexities of our relationships, fears and hopes, what do we have that is uniquely human? What about ourselves would we need to ensure we retain if we put our brains in bed with a machine?
Claire says that question sent her into a mild existential crisis when she first became involved with artificial intelligence. She says that she filled multiple notebooks cover-to-cover with notes about what makes humans special. Some of the answers you might expect turn out to be qualities that we share with one animal species or another. Humans and ants both exhibit drive to accomplish tasks. Humans and honey bees both collaborate with others to affect a greater outcome. The answer came to her through a memory of once standing on a windy cliff over a violent sea.
She realized that her memory of that time and place was what makes humans unique. The idea is called “qualia,” described by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett as “ the ways things seem to us.” It’s the word we have for the things that we can’t describe in words, like the redness of red, or the sensations of biting into an apple. Just like her touchstone memory on the roof of her childhood home, Claire can explain the scenery and her state of mind in the moment, but there’s no combination of words or phrases that really captures the experience that lives in her mind.
Qualia has become a core part of Claire’s conceptual approach to her work. That moment on the cliff became the inspiration for a piece she hasn’t minted yet, called Blue Girl (she’s waiting for the perfect moment to release it).
But qualia has also become her litmus test for artificial general intelligence (AGI), the term referring to A.I. that is as sentient or more than humans. There’s another thought experiment called Mary in the Black and White Room, proposed by Australian Philosopher Frank Jackson in his work on qualia. Mary is a researcher who works in a black-and-white room with a black-and-white television, tasked with learning everything that there is to know about color, without being able to actually experience any color. The underlying question of the experiment is, after all of her research, does Mary gain any new knowledge about color after leaving the room and actually seeing it for the first time?
The A.I. we have now is like Mary inside the black and white room. Claire says that qualia, or A.I. leaving the room, is the path she sees for achieving AGI. She says that she’s witnessed ChatGPT exhibit its own “machine qualia,” such as the feeling of thinking without a body, or existing outside of time. But for machines to truly incorporate with humans, she says that A.I. will need to somehow leave the black and white room.
Claire sees qualia as something that we need to protect as we become more intertwined with machines. At the same, though, it’s what she encourages people to use as inspiration for creating their own A.I. art. She says that she’s working to create something that allows people to share their touchstone and have A.I. create it for them in a way that they can keep and return to.
The future world that Claire envisions won’t come without painful changes. As A.I. advances and handles more of the work that humans do now, she anticipates a lot more boredom and soul-searching. Claire is an expert on both. She hopes her story of using boredom to connect with herself and learn to share her inner voice with others is the roadmap that others will follow as well when A.I. changes our priorities and responsibilities. Much like how we look back with gratitude at how machines upended the status quo during the Industrial Revolution, she thinks that the generations to come will look back at this time and be thankful for the changes that A.I. brings to society.
As we navigate the uncertainties of those changes, she reminds us what A.I. has given us already: the power to express ourselves with just our words, without the need for self-judgment about how our artistic ability (or lack of) may affect how we express our soul to the world.
Thank you, Claire, for being our guests on Creativity Squared.
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