How Adobe’s bet on non-exploitative AI is paying off

In an exclusive interview with MIT Technology Review, Adobe’s AI leaders are adamant this is the only way forward. At stake is not just the livelihood of creators, they say, but our whole information ecosystem. What they have learned shows that building responsible tech doesn’t have to come at the cost of doing business. 

“We worry that the industry, Silicon Valley in particular, does not pause to ask the ‘how’ or the ‘why.’ Just because you can build something doesn’t mean you should build it without consideration of the impact that you’re creating,” says David Wadhwani, senior vice president of Adobe’s digital media business. 

Those questions guided the creation of Firefly. When the generative image boom kicked off in 2022, there was a major backlash against AI from creative communities. Many people were using generative AI models as derivative content machines to create images in the style of another artist, sparking a legal fight over copyright and fair use. The latest generative AI technology has also made it much easier to create deepfakes and misinformation. 

It soon became clear that to offer creators proper credit and businesses legal certainty, the company could not build its models by scraping the web of data, Wadwani says.  

Adobe wants to reap the benefits of generative AI while still “recognizing that these are built on the back of human labor. And we have to figure out how to fairly compensate people for that labor now and in the future,” says Ely Greenfield, Adobe’s chief technology officer for digital media.  

To scrape or not to scrape

The scraping of online data, commonplace in AI, has recently become highly controversial. AI companies such as OpenAI, Stability.AI, Meta, and Google are facing numerous lawsuits over AI training data. Tech companies argue that publicly available data is fair game. Writers and artists disagree and are pushing for a license-based model, where creators would get compensated for having their work included in training datasets. 

Adobe trained Firefly on content that had an explicit license allowing AI training, which means the bulk of the training data comes from Adobe’s library of stock photos, says Greenfield. The company offers creators extra compensation when material is  used to train AI models, he adds.  

This is in contrast to the status quo in AI today, where tech companies scrape the web indiscriminately and have a limited understanding of what of what the training data includes. Because of these practices, the AI datasets inevitably include copyrighted content and personal data, and research has uncovered toxic content, such as child sexual abuse material

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