The idea that AI will kill jobs has been around for as long as I’ve been writing about tech, but 2023 has certainly accelerated things. 

Both Microsoft and Google are letting AI scrape websites for a quick cribbed answer without giving said sites any traffic in return, while apps like Dalle-2 and Midjourney can mimic a creator’s art style to draw anything you like in seconds. Why bother paying an artist to painstakingly create something when an AI will do it for nothing?

The obvious answer to that is “because artists need to eat”, but to a cheapskate that’s not a good enough reason. Thankfully, researchers from the University of Chicago have stepped in with a short-term solution that should stave off AI thievery for a little while, at least.

The university has created Glaze. The free-to-use app for PC and Mac alters pictures in a way that’s barely perceptible to humans, but completely messes with AI art generators. Observe how these so-called “style cloaks” can fool AI into thinking it’s looking at a completely different artist’s work:

The upshot is that anybody trying to get AI to generate art in your style may be hugely disappointed when it pops out something in the style of Vincent Van Gogh instead.

“The cloak is not some brittle watermark that is either seen or not seen,” the researchers say in an FAQ. “It is a transformation of the image in a dimension that humans do not perceive, but very much in the dimensions that the deep learning model perceive these images.”

“That’s great”, you might be thinking. “But isn’t it too late if I’ve got dozens of pictures that have already been used for AI training?” Not so, say the researchers. 

“The more cloaked images you post online, the more your style will shift in the AI model’s feature space, shifting closer to the target style (e.g., van Gogh’s style),” the FAQ explains. “At some point, when the shift is significant enough, the AI model will start to generate images in van Gogh’s style when being asked for your style.” 

True, the style cloak does give pictures a slightly grainier quality as you can see above, but that’s a minor inconvenience if it stops AI from cribbing your style without royalty payments.

The researchers accept that if everyone were to use Glaze, then the apps would have to fight back. “Any technique we use to cloak artworks today might be overcome by a future countermeasure, possibly rendering previously protected art vulnerable,” the discussion section of the paper says.

But in the short term, it’s a solution to protect your art from AI undercutting you. In theory, it should buy enough time for legal and regulatory protections for artists to kick in. In practice, we could be waiting a long time for legislators to get their heads around the problem, let alone come up with a viable solution to approach fixing it.