Maria’s Dick Pic: A Thought Experiment for AI Ethics and Porn

Suppose you took a person, in this case a baby named Maria, and locked her in an isolated room from the day she was born. She has never seen another person, not even her own reflection.

One day, you show Maria one hundred pictures of naked men that you randomly found on the internet. You even take the time to point out specific anatomical features in every picture you show her, so that she can get a better understanding of the male body. You’ve given her a crash course on what ‘men’ are.

You then give her a piece of paper and a pen, and ask her to draw a new man. Not one of the ones she saw in the photos, but a new man based on what she has learned a ‘man’ might look like from those photos.

Is the resulting image an example of “non-consensual porn” in which the consent of the men in the photos Maria was shown was not properly given when it should have been required before the image was drawn?

This question seems a little absurd. The reason I bring it up is because I have heard the argument made before, most prominently by Samantha Cole at Vice News, that GANgenerated pornography is an example of “non-consensual porn”. For reference, a GAN is a kind of AI that can be “trained” on a sample of images of the same type (for example cats or in our case nudes) in order to produce new iterations of images of that type.

In order to make sure I am not straw manning anyone I want to state that I am specifically referencing the stance I have seen communicated on GAN generated nude images and not anything else. These are images which were created by an AI that was trained on pornography starring real people, but these images do not contain any real people themselves. And it is these images that I have seen labelled “non-consensual porn”.

The argument I understand proponents of the “non-consensual porn” position to be making is;
1) If a GAN was trained on images of real people
2) And if those people did not explicitly consent to having their data used to train the GAN
3) Then the resulting images that the GAN creates are examples of “non-consensual porn” in which the people in the original images the GAN was trained on were not afforded the proper opportunity to consent
4) These images are “non-consensual porn” because the people in the images created by the GAN are recreations that are based on, and likely in some way resemble, the people the GAN was shown in point 3

I wanted to state that chain of logic explicitly as it’s possible I’m misinterpreting what their argument is. If that’s the case, forget this whole thing. However if my interpretation of their position is correct I would like for the proponents of this argument to answer the question I previously asked; Is the image Maria drew an example of “non-consensual porn”?

The reason I am asking is because I cannot think of a single meaningful qualitative difference between Maria’s drawing and the GAN created nude images.

Both Maria and the GAN start as tabula rasa. They have no conception of the human body. Both are shown a number of nude images, both have certain anatomical features specifically “labelled” for them, and through this both come to understand a certain gestalt of what a human body is. Both are then instructed to use this knowledge to generate a new image of a body based on the gestalt, and use the remembered images (as encoded in their respective neural networks) to create a new iteration of a human body as best as they can render it.

I believe that the position that GAN generated nude images are “non-consensual porn” is absurd. And I don’t see how someone can hold that position without claiming Maria’s drawing is also an instance of “non-consensual porn”.

Every artist who has ever drawn a naked human body in their life is, to some degree or another, basing it on the images of other naked people they have seen. These people likely did not give explicit consent to have their naked image used as part of a broader understanding of human bodies that enable an artist to draw naked people. Are all these drawings examples of “non-consensual porn”?

Maybe I’m misinterpreting their arguments. Or maybe they would hold that Maria’s drawings are in fact “non-consensual pornography”? That position, while absurd, would be logically consistent at the very least.

If I were looking for some sort of separating factor that makes Maria’s drawing okay but the GAN’s rendering “non-consensual porn”, then I would say something like, “Aha but even if she hasn’t seen her own reflection, Maria has seen her own torso and arms and legs, and so she at least had a ‘foundation’ of her own self-image to build upon. The GAN doesn’t have that.” However, I don’t believe this argument holds water either.

If Maria had been bald her whole life, and you showed her images of long haired blonde men, and she drew a man with long blonde hair, then she could not have based that even slightly on her own self image. Is it acceptable for Maria to draw a man who is bald like her, but not a man with long blonde hair? What if by some coincidence, Maria hadn’t ever caught a glimpse of her own body? Maybe she was blind until thirty minutes before she saw the photos. Was the drawing fine in the first hypothetical when Maria had self-image of her own body, but in the case she did not her drawing turned her into a “non-consensual pornographer”?

And so I come back to the original question: Is Maria’s drawing “non-consensual porn”?

I based this thought experiment on another I had heard called “Mary’s Room”, and they both deal with similar questions about the nature of knowledge. What is it to know a thing? What is it to reproduce an example of that thing, based on what you know of it? Is it really different if a machine learns and reproduces the same exact thing your brain does, but using silicon instead of grey matter? Is there a point where the rising ape meets the falling GANgel, or are they on entirely different ladders?

These are not simple questions and they deserve honest and serious conversation, not buzzwords.

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