Left: AI avatar of Yuliya generated by Ascendant AI; right: user-submitted photo of Yuliya (all images courtesy Ascendant Art)

Is there such a thing as socially responsible generative AI? According to Mitch Randall, CEO of Ascendant Art, there could be. Or at least, there should be. 

The company recently launched a new avatar generator app that pays artists royalties for using their work, unlike many similar programs.

In a time when generative AI programs like Stable Diffusion and Midjourney have been heavily criticized for lack of artist compensation and even what some see as plagiarism, Ascendant AI hopes to change the narrative surrounding this new technology by bridging the gap between the art world and tech, proposing an alternative where AI is not a competitor but an asset to artists.

“If you’re going to train your AI on artists’ work, then when you make money off what you’ve done, those artists should get reimbursed,” Randall told Hyperallergic. “Capitalism is not putting this forward as an idea when it’s actually the most obvious idea.”

Currently, users can purchase 100 avatars from Ascendant for $11.99. These lifelike graphics take less than half an hour to make and are developed using facial recognition technology combined with generative AI.

A quarter of net profits from sales goes to the artists whose work was used to train the AI, according to Ascendant’s website. These profits are then distributed based on what percentage of their work was used, which is tracked through Ascendant’s proprietary software.

While this concept might sound foolproof in theory, some artists have expressed their concerns online over the reality of its efficacy, opining that AI technology has been exploitative of creative work thus far. Artist and writer Molly Crabapple, who recently penned an open letter against the use of generative images, believes that royalty-based models like Ascendant’s “will further drive down our already meager wages and force artists to compete with their algorithmic doppelgängers.”

“Any illustrator who uploads their art is both devaluing their own work and undercutting wages for the entire field. Because the draw of AI generated images are that they are massively cheaper and faster than any human can be, whatever small amounts of money an artist earns in ‘royalties’ will never amount to a fraction of what they’d make with a single commissioned illustration,” Crabapple told Hyperallergic. “This is the Spotify model, where a musician can get a million streams and make fifty cents.”

Zakuga Mignon, a digital illustrator whose work has ended up on AI-created book covers, recently took to Twitter to express their views about Ascendant’s proposal. “The system of ‘you will be compensated for your contribution in AI’ is bullshit,” Mignon wrote. “One, you cannot track it, and I don’t want to be forced to be a part of this. My art is already in romance indie covers using AI. I do not want to be forced into my own oblivion.”

Aside from monetary compensation, Ascendant is also looking to tackle two other issues that have been centers of debate since the rise of AI-generated art: consent and credit. As part of Ascendant Art’s design, artists can choose which work they want to submit and upload it to the company’s site to train the app’s AI program.

Earlier this year, Stability AI and other companies were hit with several lawsuits, including a class-action suit, over copyright infringement and intellectual property rights for using artwork without artists’ consent to train its generative AI. If these lawsuits are upheld, the model for some of these programs may be forced to include and prioritize artists — something, Randall explained, that Ascendant is trying to do from the get-go by being a “revenue stream” for creatives instead of a threat.

Randall said that Ascendant is working on incorporating a feature that will give the artists on their platform more recognition, and give users more ways to access artists and their work.

“In a way, it’s a gallery,” Randall explained. “It’s a little different than a gallery because in a gallery you look, and you don’t walk away with anything, and you don’t pay anything. But in this gallery, you get just a little bit of that artist’s work, and they get just a little bit of royalty. When millions of people do that, that’s not a bad living.”

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Maya Pontone

Maya Pontone is a Staff Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from northern New Jersey, she studied journalism and political science at Emerson College in Boston, MA. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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