When I was 11, a teacher wheeled a computer into my classroom and showed us some BASIC programming. First he told it to print “0,” which it did obediently. Next, he told it to repeat the command. A single line of zeroes zipped down the left side of the blocky TV which passed for a monitor in those days. By adding a semicolon at the end of the command, the teacher could make zeros fill the entire screen. I still remember the lightning bolt of affinity—I wanted to see what I could make it do. I knew in that instant that something special had come into my life.

I have been coding for 35 years, most of it for the web. My career moved from writing code to directing those who write it, to planning major code projects, and finally to working with corporate authors to get their words into the websites I’d helped build. It is all art to me, and I’ve never lost that sense of wonder when my ones and zeroes behave as directed.

Computers, bless their binary hearts, do precisely what we instruct. I’ve laughed many times at the outcomes of imprecise instructions. But the tide is turning, and the instructions are multiplying and layering atop each other. That crucial human touch in art and coding now finds an ally in computers that can decipher our intentions, within reason. This new era of collaboration is the world of AI.

So, Computers Can Make Pictures Now?

Last year, I set out to create inspirational photos of my characters with AI. The vision was clear, but the execution? Let’s just say it was a learning curve. I couldn’t hit on the exact right words (called a prompt) to generate the exact picture in my head. I did get close! Take Celia, for instance. I asked for a part-Filipino woman in her mid-forties, worried and unsmiling. To generate wide cheekbones, wavy jaw-length hair, and olive skin, I tried command after command. I got close, but couldn’t recreate the image in my head.

headshot of a somber part-asian woman with chin-length hair, in front of an abstract painting suggesting a swimming pool at night

Over the last 12 months, AI got better and I got better at AI. My prompt skills improved with every illustration I made (and I made a lot). Remember those twisted hands with too many fingers that AI used to create? A telltale sign of AI’s limitations. But then Midjourney, a popular AI image maker, released an update and suddenly, the hands were flawless. It was like watching a child learn to draw, only this child was a machine, and I was its guide.

The synergy between human direction and machine learning was growing incredibly fast. I was learning to speak AI’s language and AI learning to understand my artistic vision. Together, we grew, we evolved, and we created art that was both human and machine. Look at my Celia now! Her appearance is based partly on my neices, and I can actually see echos of them in this image.

headshot of a somber part-asian woman with chin-length hair, in front of an abstract painting suggesting a swimming pool at night

AI will not take your job. A human who can use AI will take your job.

AI is opening doors, breaking barriers, and making the creation of art accessible to individuals. Many artists are rightfully upset by this—painters, coders, writers, and anyone who painstakingly developed skills that AI seems to copy effortlessly. I won’t write about that debate, as it’s been covered well elsewhere. But let’s not forget that AI is still a only tool, waiting to be wielded by the human hand. It’s not about the machine creating art; it’s about the human guiding it, infusing it with soul and vision.

The debate over AI’s new skills often overlooks the potential of collaboration. AI doesn’t diminish the human touch; it amplifies it. It’s not a rival; it’s a partner, waiting to be guided, ready to learn and grow with us. Just as I saw beauty in a screen filling with zeroes, I can bask in the way I wrote my characters into being and AI gave me pictures of their faces.

Will AI replace human artistry? Never. It will empower artists to explore new horizons. We’ll get control over this new tool just as we did with the printing press, car, and smartphone. We’ll be changed by it, though, just as I was changed at 11. It’s a new world, and we have to embrace it because there’s no going back. What fun the embracing may turn out to be!