Exclusive Q&A With Photographer Rankin: “AI Is Dangerous But Exciting”

Exclusive Q&A With Photographer Rankin

“AI Is Dangerous But Exciting”

Exclusive Q&A With Photographer Rankin: “AI Is Dangerous But Exciting”
The world-renowned creative has photographed The Queen, Gisele, and Madonna, among others—now he is “interrogating” generative AI as a tool for good

This article covers:

  • Why business leaders must approach generative AI with caution
  • How creatives are shaping the future of art with these new tech tools
  • Concerns about bad AI and the importance of collaborating to innovate for good

Crowe Global’s Art of Smart is a thought-leadership campaign to help business leaders make smarter decisions. The content is founded upon four pillars: boldness; diversity; growth; and innovation. And few people can claim to be as innovative as John Rankin Waddell—better known as Rankin.

As an iconic photographer, he has taken celebrity portraits of everyone, from Adele to Jay-Z. Rankin has been involved in numerous collaborative artistic projects and directed music videos, documentaries, films, and advertisements. He has also supported various charitable causes.

Here he explains what the mass adoption of generative AI means for him, the art world, and wider society. Looking through his artistic lens, he can see the pros and cons of this newly introduced technology and offers a unique viewpoint from which business leaders can learn.

Art of Smart (AoS): What was your reaction when, in earlier in 2023, German artist Boris Eldagsen admitted his entry that won a prize at the Sony World Photography Awards was created using artificial intelligence, to provoke debate? 

Rankin (R): Firstly, how it won an award is beyond me! Currently, you can see an AI image that’s been created by an open-source system within seconds. Obviously, that will change and be genuinely disruptive within the industry.

Whether it’s the metaverse, or NFTs (non-fungible tokens), we’ve spent the last three years with these buzzwords and ideas, but the public isn’t picking up on them as it was assumed they would. Generative AI is the serious one. This is the one that’s going to change everything.

Therefore, this AI should be interrogated, as it’s very dangerous. It’s going to change everything that we do. There’s so much that is exciting about that, and so much of it is not.

One of the worst things that I think it could be is social media Mark II, because the original created echo chambers and destroyed democracies, and made populist governments in so many countries across the world. AI could be that times 1,000, so I’m interested in it, I want to use it, I have used it, but I’m interrogating it.

AoS: How are you, at Rankin Creative, interrogating generative AI?

R: We’re looking into how we can use different types of generative AI, where we mix them with reality. I’ve used both image-based and word-based generative AI, and I’m experiment with some sound-based ones. I want to bring it out and show people what I’m thinking about it, but I’m trying to keep that to myself for now.

I recognize that images simply don’t look real right now, and that they might feel that there’s an element of reality to them, but that they’re going to get better and that element of reality will be there soon.

But I do think that the top end of the market will not want to invest in completely artificial things. At my end of the market, AI will be another tool, alongside thousands of others we already use. It’s exciting, I don’t dislike it, but I think it will be very scary.

AoS: What makes you say that AI will be very scary?

R: If you look at it on more of a cultural and social significance level, it’s going to create this crazy bad-actor stuff in upcoming US and UK elections. There’s no question that people will use it in a certain way. Even now, you can log on to websites where you’ve got Donald Trump and Joe Biden basically swearing at each other, and it looks relatively believable.

So when you’ve got that echo-chamber-style marketing available to people who have already made up their minds, and there is already the cognitive dissonance, it will compound that and double down on what they think the truth is. That’s the thing that will be challenging for the marketing and advertising industry as a whole. Because we’re already not trusted, that much, so that’s why I’m kind of interested in how I can mark some sort of identity around it being authoritatively real.

AI is going to be imperfect on every level. I’m not talking about Doomsday-movie-style stuff here; I’m talking about the everyday. It can be used mischievously, for evil. It will be used to con people, make stories up, and create fake visual imagery. It’s going to have a massive effect.

AoS: What advice would you give to business leaders about the copyright issues thrown up by generative AI?

R: Someone told me it’s like lawyers invented this AI because it will be an absolute mess regarding intellectual property. As I know a lot about photography, I can see some platforms intentionally encoded with specific aesthetic treatments. There is serious diversity bias, and it will be very messy.

Still, if you can create an AI to make these things, surely you can create an AI to work out how they were brought together. To me, it feels very dangerous to think we can use it with impunity. I would be very nervous to do that.

AoS: In light of technological advancement, how can these innovations help us be more human in an increasingly digital world, and enable leaders to better collaborate?

R: Yeah, for me, that’s the future. For a long time, people were trying to invent computers to beat a chess master, and eventually, they beat a chess master. But the next time the chess master played that computer, they did so with the computer, and they won.

That’s where we have to work with this technology, be very nervous about it, interrogate it, and be open about it, in the way we weren’t open about social media. It needs to be discussed at a governance level; it can’t just be creatives. We have to be very serious about how we’re embracing this stuff.

Today somebody said: “AI reduced my costs by 60 percent.” They’re just jumping into it without even thinking. Great, you reduce your costs, it’s very trendy, but we are discussing something changing society and human interaction. If you take what social media does and compound it and multiply it, this is what AI has the potential to do.

Of course, I will be using it and working with it and trying to collaborate in a way that makes my work better. But I still fear it and will always look at it suspiciously because I want to ensure that I’m not doing something inappropriate or dangerous. Because it could be very, very dangerous.

Key takeaway questions

  • How have you empowered your managers and teams to explore and use generative AI?
  • What safeguards are in place to ensure that humans remain in the loop and that technology is enhancing workers’ jobs?
  • Could you do more to educate leadership team members—yourself included—to better understand the threat and opportunity presented by generative AI?
  • Should you partner with domain experts to use nascent technologies and accelerate innovation?
  • Regarding identifying partners, do you need to rethink who the organization should collaborate with to speed up progress while not compromising security?