AI is a Tool, Not a Separate Species Should AI developers be allowed to train models freely on the contents of the web? The lawsuit by Sony, Universal, and Warner against AI music generators Suno and Udio raises difficult questions.

Published
Jun 26, 2024
Reading time
3 min read
AI is a Tool, Not a Separate Species: Should AI developers be allowed to train models freely on the contents of the web? The lawsuit by Sony, Universal, and Warner against AI music generators Suno and Udio raises difficult questions.

Dear friends,

On Monday, a number of large music labels sued AI music makers Suno and Udio for copyright infringement. Their lawsuit echoes The New York Times’ lawsuit against OpenAI in December. The question of what’s fair when it comes to AI software remains a difficult one. 

spoke out in favor of OpenAI’s side in the earlier lawsuit. Humans can learn from online articles and use what they learn to produce novel works, so I’d like to be allowed to use AI to do so. Some people criticized my view as making an unjustifiable equivalence between humans and AI. This made me realize that people have at least two views of AI: I view AI as a tool we can use and direct to our own purposes, while some people see it as akin to a separate species, distinct from us, with its own goals and desires.

If I’m allowed to build a house, I want to be allowed to use a hammer, saw, drill, or any other tool that might get the job done efficiently. If I’m allowed to read a webpage, I’d like to be allowed to read it with any web browser, and perhaps even have the browser modify the page’s formatting for accessibility. More generally, if we agree that humans are allowed to do certain things — such as read and synthesize information on the web — then my inclination is to let humans direct AI to automate this task. 

In contrast to this view of AI as a tool, if someone thinks humans and AI are akin to separate species, they’ll frame the question differently. Few people today think all species should have identical rights. If a mosquito annoys a human, the mosquito can be evicted (or worse). In this view, there’s no reason to think that, just because humans are allowed to do something, AI should be allowed to do it as well. 

To be clear, just as humans aren’t allowed to reproduce large parts of copyrighted works verbatim (or nearly verbatim) without permission, AI shouldn’t be allowed to do so either. The lawsuit against Suno and Udio points out that, when prompted in a particular way, these services can nearly reproduce pieces of copyrighted music.

But here, too, there are complex issues. If someone were to use a public cloud to distribute online content in violation of copyright, typically the person who did that would be at fault, not the cloud company (so long as the company took reasonable precautions and didn’t enable copyright infringement deliberately). The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Suno and Udio managed to write prompts that caused the systems to reproduce copyrighted work. But is this like someone managing to get a public cloud to scrape and distribute content in a way that violates copyright? Or is this — as OpenAI said — a rare bug that AI companies are working to eliminate? (Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and I’m not giving legal advice.)

Humans and software systems use very different mechanisms for processing information. So in terms of what humans can do — and thus what I’d like to be allowed to use software to help me do — it’s helpful to consider the inputs and outputs. Specifically, if I’m allowed to listen to a lot of music and then compose a novel piece of music, I would like to be allowed to use AI to implement a similar input-to-output mapping. The process for implementing this mapping may be training a neural network on music that’s legally published on the open internet for people to enjoy without encumbrances.

To acknowledge a weakness of my argument, just because humans are allowed to emit a few pounds of carbon dioxide per day simply by breathing doesn’t mean we should allow machines to emit massively more carbon dioxide without restrictions. Scale can change the nature of an act. 

When I was a high-school student in an internship job, I spent numerous hours photocopying, and I remember wishing I could automate that repetitive work. Humans do lots of valuable work, and AI, used as a tool to automate what we do, will create lots of value. I hope we can empower people to use tools to automate activities they’re allowed to do, and erect barriers to this only in extraordinary circumstances, when we have clear evidence that it creates more harm than benefit to society.

Keep learning!

Andrew 

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