Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag is known for haunting paintings that blend natural landscapes with the eerie futurism of giant robots, mysterious industrial machines, and alien creatures. Earlier this week, Stålenhag appeared to experience some dystopian dread of his own when he found that artificial intelligence had been used to mimic his style.

The act of AI imitation was performed by Andres Guadamuz, a reader in intellectual property law at the University of Sussex in the UK who has been studying legal issues around AI-generated art. He used a service called Midjourney to create images resembling Stålenhag’s spooky style, and posted them to Twitter.

Guadamuz says he created the images to highlight the legal and ethical questions that algorithms that generate art may raise. Midjourney is just one of many AI programs capable of churning out art on demand in response to a text prompt, using machine learning algorithms that have digested millions of labeled images from the web or public data sets. After that training, they can conjure up almost any combination of objects and scenes and can reproduce the styles of individual artists with uncanny accuracy.

Guadamuz says he chose Stålenhag for his experiment because the artist has criticized AI-generated art in the past and might be expected to object. In a blog post after the incident, Guadamuz argues that lawsuits claiming infringement are unlikely to succeed, because while a piece of art may be protected by copyright, an artistic style cannot.

Stålenhag did not approve of the stunt. In a series of tweets this week, he said that while borrowing from other artists is a “cornerstone of a living, artistic culture,” he dislikes AI art because “it reveals that that kind of derivative, generated goo is what our new tech lords are hoping to feed us in their vision of the future.”

Stålenhag did not respond to requests for comment. Guadamuz publicly apologized to Stålenhag and says he deleted tweets that included the derivative images. Guadamuz also says he received angry messages, including a death threat, from some Twitter users who disapproved of his stunt. He says that what started out as a thought-provoking experiment was misinterpreted as an attack. “I’m bored and mild-mannered academic by day, but by night I become a supervillain destroying artists’ livelihoods … or something,” Guadamuz jokes.

Algorithms have been used to generate art for decades, but a new era of AI art began in January 2021, when AI development company OpenAI announced DALL-E, a program that used recent improvements in machine learning to generate simple images from a string of text.

In April this year, the company announced DALL-E 2, which can generate photos, illustrations, and paintings that look like they were produced by human artists. This July OpenAI announced that DALL-E would be made available to anyone to use and said that images could be used for commercial purposes.

OpenAI restricts what users can do with the service, using keyword filters and tools capable of spotting certain types of images that might be considered offensive. Others have built similar tools—such as Midjourney, used by Guadamuz to mimic Stålenhag—which can differ in their rules about appropriate use.

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