The GustieBot is strange, not evil

Jonas Doerr-

On March 14th, Gustavus released a new feature to help attract new students: the GustieBot. This new feature is an AI that generates pictures of either a lion or of users from an uploaded headshot doing activities one might do at Gustavus. Although members of the Gustavus community have been voicing complaints about it, it is not the disgusting threat to human expression that many are making it out to be.

“The GustieBot was built to be a fun, clickable way to help prospective students see themselves at Gustavus. We know Gusties have multiple roles and identities — they’re biologists and wide receivers and tenors and gamers and volunteers, and, and, and. They’re doing all these things, all at the same time, all at the same place.” Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management in Admission, David Kogler said

The initial post on Instagram introducing the GustieBot said, “FYI, this is brand new (and still in beta mode), so let us know what you think!” People took them up on that.

User @peterbjorklund_ commented, “Take the art out of a Liberal Arts College, classic.” User @tristan.elwell commented, “Unintentionally ironic hashtag: Why, Gustavus, why?!” User @lindseykolhase commented, “Why is money being spent on a generative ai program when there literally isn’t drinkable water in the art building.” Many other comments also voiced discontent with the GustieBot, arguing that the funding should have gone to “real artists” and supported Gustavus art students.

Were these complaints fair? I tried the GustieBot to see if it really was the threat to Gustavus art majors people seemed to be claiming it was. I didn’t want to put in a headshot, although the website doesn’t store those photos, so I chose to be represented by Gus the Lion. I selected several characteristics, like a baseball cap, chose a location (dormitory), put in my major (Communication Studies), and put in an activity I’m interested in (Ultimate Frisbee). The result was amusing, but not very threatening.

Gus stood wide-eyed in something resembling a Norelius dorm, wearing a newsboy cap and holding a thin, cheap-looking frisbee. Behind him was a bed so close to the ceiling only a cardboard cutout could sleep in it and a banner on the wall reading, “ETCFURCATEON.” Gus clearly had been studying hard in his Communications classes.

This sort of art didn’t seem like it would take any jobs away from art majors. I asked Megan Lipke, a Junior Studio Art and History double major, if she felt threatened by AI art. She said no, and added, “ I think human artists bring their flaws. Just like some people prefer the original vocal artist’s sound to that of autotune, others prefer the subtleties included in an artist’s work. I also think the process adds to the artwork. For example, playing a song as you bottle up an artwork so the song is “contained” in the bottle, or the emotions someone has behind a piece. Some people use found materials to create their piece. AI cannot do that.”

Lipke recently had a piece displayed in Beck Hall bringing awareness to children in Nairobi, Kenya who are addicted to jet fuel and glue. It used foam silhouettes and plastic bottles to create a physical display of the sad situation; AI can neither make physical art like that nor promote a social movement like that. Similarly, other art students at Gustavus bring both a level of talent and social awareness that AI will not replicate. To support them, take a look at the Senior Studio Art Majors exhibition in the Hillstrom Museum opening May 4th through the 25th, or the Junior Studio Art Majors exhibition in the Schaefer Art Gallery, open now until May 14th.

The other argument made against the GustieBot is that it is taking away funding that could have been better allocated to various portions of the Fine Arts department, such as improving the drinking water or paying art students commissions. While it’s true that those are noble causes, the admissions and fine arts departments have different budgets and goals. Should those budgets be reallocated? Maybe, but Fine Arts students already have their work displayed more prominently than any other collection of majors. Also, the GustieBot, according to the admissions department, has been effective so far.

When asked about the impact of the GustieBot so far, Kogler commented: “Since it launched in mid-March, we’re really happy to see that more than 4,500 people have used the GustieBot. We’re just starting to use the GustieBot in innovative ways, such as at college fairs. Recently in a gym full of college representatives, a group of students walked up to our table and saw a postcard for the GustieBot and asked what it was. That curiosity gave our admission counselor an opportunity to connect and tell the students more about all the great things Gustavus has to offer.”

“We love seeing the drawings and installations and exhibits around campus with art made by Gusties. We should continue talking about other ways to highlight artists’ talent and work. The GustieBot wasn’t created to replace anyone’s art or to promote specific majors. Instead, the GustieBot is meant to make the key point that Gusties get more out of college by being able to live all parts of their life, in a high-quality way, without having to choose or compromise. We think this is an authentic and useful message to make for prospective students. Once we’ve engaged that student, we can follow up with stories about Gusties making art, or doing research, or studying abroad, preparing for careers, or using AI in helpful ways.” Kogler said when asked about the controversy over the use of AI.

AI will only become a bigger part of school and the workplace in the future. Asking for it to be hidden away is counterproductive. Students need to learn how to develop skills that set them apart from AI, not be shielded from the modern workplace reality. Instead of moralizing against it and passively complaining about how “gross” it is, we should continue including it in our education so that we know how to control rather than be controlled by it. The GustieBot is one first step towards bringing Gustavus into a future-minded educational system.

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