Apr 18, 2024 - Sports

Exclusive: Using AI, Steve Gleason creates art for first time since ALS diagnosis

Steve Gleason sits in an audience while his wife, Michel Varisco Gleason, holds his hand. Their son sits next to her.

Steve Gleason, left, and his wife, artist Michel Varisco Gleason, attend the 2020 Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony in honor of Steve Gleason. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Steve Gleason will unveil new, AI-generated artwork tonight, offering a glimpse of the former New Orleans Saint and ALS activist's first pieces since he lost the ability to move his limbs.

Why it matters: The "Resilient Spirit" collection symbolizes one solution for Gleason, who has said he was "desperately" searching for meaning in an increasingly difficult life, while also paving a new pathway for artists with disabilities to continue creating.

The big picture: Since Open AI released Dall-E, there's been a debate about the merits and ethics of AI-generated art and the content used to train it for creating new imagery.

  • While there are detractors, some artists have likened AI to the invention of the camera, a cultural game-changer that eventually became just another medium in an artist's toolbox.

Zoom in: Gleason is famous in New Orleans for blocking a punt that was returned for a touchdown on Monday Night Football in 2006.

  • It was the Saints' first game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, and that moment and the celebration afterward has lived on as one of the most collectively cathartic in living memory.
  • But the athletic body that made Gleason's block possible carried a secret.

He was diagnosed with ALS after increasing health troubles five years later.

What he says: "ALS is a training ground for wanting only what you have," Gleason writes in his forthcoming memoir, "A Life Impossible," co-authored with New Orleans sports columnist Jeff Duncan. "As you have less, you must learn to want less. You must find new creative ways to explore and expand."

  • Gleason writes that he struggled to find creative outlets "to cope with this unbearable existence and to compensate for my physical losses."
A slide that says Adobe Firefly + Team Gleason, with a drawing of two boats by Gleason and three colorized and stylized versions created by AI.
An original drawing by Gleason, at left, and AI generated renditions at right. Image: Courtesy of the Nieux Society

Gleason first experimented with Dall-E shortly after its release, says Tim Williamson with the Nieux Society, a New Orleans technology collective that fostered a collaboration between Gleason and Adobe.

  • In that collaboration, Adobe gave Gleason early access to its AI art generating tool Firefly, including a feature that lets him teach the system about his creative style using private sketches he created prior to his diagnosis.
  • It's a lot like voice banking, where Gleason has worked with other tech leaders like Microsoft and Google to create a realistic rendition of his voice using AI and early recordings.
  • "This is a way to save your creativity, for folks to be proactive when they are diagnosed with ALS," says New Orleans-based Adobe customer success senior manager Adam Wood. "It opens up a whole new world."

Yes, but: While big tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple do invest in accessibility, the results can be clumsy, especially with cutting edge products.

  • That was the case with Firefly, too, Wood says, but he's been able to watch Gleason interact with the platform to provide feedback to improve it for other users with disabilities.
  • "When we met the first time, we documented every step in the process … as Steve was using it," Wood says, "whether it was delays in logging in or a pop-up coming up or his usability while engaging with the interface."

What's next: Tonight's showing is private, but Gleason and the Nieux Society hope other artists diagnosed with ALS create new works for an art exhibition coinciding with the 2025 Super Bowl in New Orleans, according to a press release.

  • A book signing for Gleason's memoir is scheduled for May 9 with Octavia Books. A location is TBD.

If you go: The Nieux Society has the work on view from 10am to 5pm, Monday through Friday.

A slide that says Adobe Firefly + Team Gleason, with a black and white photo of a small child standing next to Gleason in his wheelchair, looking at an oak tree, and a colorized and stylized version created by AI next to it.
An original photo from Gleason's collection, at left, and an AI generated rendition at right. Image: Courtesy of the Nieux Society

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