William Blake vs AI

What happens when artificial intelligence gets hold of the work of an 18th century visionary artist? Fantastic results, but they’re not imaginative in the way William Blake understood the word

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According to science-fiction writers, artificial intelligence is going to keep increasing in power and sophistication until it overtakes its human creators. At this point, the more dramatic stories tell us, all bets will be off. We will no longer be able to understand or control this strange beast. If AI did indeed reach a point where it became sentient, who knows how it would treat its human parents? This is chilling because AI does indeed continue to make huge leaps forward in what it can achieve.

If there is anything that can be said to be uniquely human, itís surely our imaginations

An example of what AI is now capable of was created by the artist Eric Drass, better known online as Shardcore, specifically to annoy me. Eric used a programme called BigSleep to produce images based on nothing but the title of my book, William Blake Vs The World. BigSleep has been described as like a Google search engine for images that don’t yet exist. It combines an AI called CLIP, which associates text with images, with another called BigGAN, which generates images.

In Shardcore’s hands, the code casually churned out a variety of strange and oddly beautiful images which clearly do have a Blakean aesthetic. On one level, this was deeply impressive, and not a little exciting. But for anyone who, like me, is a great lover of Blake’s worldview, it was also deeply troubling.

In the opinion of Blake, the most profound and important aspect of the universe was the human imagination. Because of the imagination, things that were genuinely new could enter the world. Here was the source of creation, Blake thought, and an endless supply of surprise, danger and unpredictability. The imagination is one of those tricky concepts that we assume we understand and as a result don’t give much thought to. When we try to define it, however, we realise it’s a much stranger and more important aspect of our lives than we usually recognise.

Much of Blake’s philosophy rests on the notion that the imagination is in some way divine. It creates the best of humanity, and is the thing that differentiates us from our animal cousins. Blake even went as far as equating the imagination with Jesus, the source of salvation. If there is anything that can be said to be uniquely human, it is surely our imaginations. For a soulless machine to casually mimic this behaviour, then, has profound implications. For a Blakean, it’s a horrifying prospect.

What makes the situation worse is that a number of the images that the AI created appear to reference the complex mythology that runs through Blake’s work. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Blake rejected the idea of referencing Greek or Roman mythology in his work. Instead, he created a pantheon of characters that were entirely of his own devising. As he explained in his epic illustrated poem Jerusalem: “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.”

Here Blake was personifying different aspects of the mind to explore creatively the conflicts that result from the different aspects of our psyches. It is a system that is rich and insightful, but sadly it is understood by far too few people. It is a great shame that Blake’s mythology is not taught in schools and has not yet become a system of common cultural references. For an AI to create images that appear to riff on it, then, is quite something.

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One of the key characters in Blake’s mythology is Los, who represents our creative powers. Los is a much more working-class concept of creativity than those employed by his near contemporaries, the Romantic poets. He is a long way from a quill-twiddling, laudanum-dosed minor aristocrat reclining in a window seat whilst invoking the muses. Instead, he is usually found surrounded by fire, metal and acids, labouring away for long hours at an anvil. His head is sometimes depicted as fire, and anyone who has been overcome by an almost manic compulsion to create will recognise him instantly. Los was the character from his mythology that Blake particularly identified with. When the AI produces an image with Blake’s name emerging from a ball of fire in the sky, few Blakeans would hesitate to identify this as a representation of Los.

In the same picture, this fiery image of Los is positioned directly opposite an image of the Earth. This also makes sense to Blakeans, who would see this as a representation of Vala, an Earth Goddess. In Blake’s mythology, Vala lacks the divine imagination that so consumes Los. She is responsible for the fall of man, when she stabs the Giant Albion with a druid’s knife. By positioning her in opposition to Los, and by having a human figure positioned as a boundary between the influences of these two mythological figures, the AI has generated an image that both stylistically references Blake’s art and also illustrates a key dramatic clash in his mythology. The AI appears to have done something that, according to Blake, only a human could have done. It is as if by paying homage to Blake, it is also mocking him.

But the AI has no idea it has done any of this. The notion that it has referenced Blake’s mythology is not something it could ever be aware of. It has no idea that an artist called William Blake existed. The AI doesn’t even know that it exists. It is not “aware” in any way that we humans would recognise. It is a vastly complicated network of code and numbers designed to recognise patterns in immense data sets, but it has no concept of what those numbers or patterns represent to us. It would not matter to the AI if the data fed into it was the work of an 18th century visionary poet, traffic flow data from Tokyo or the complete stories of Paddington Bear, because it is in no way aware that any of those things exist. It would just continue to do what it was designed to do – and shift through mountains of numbers looking for patterns that humans would never find otherwise.

We humans are also fond of pattern recognition. Our tendency to see patterns in random collections of stuff is called apophenia, and seeing objects or faces in otherwise random objects, such as clouds, is called pareidolia. This much-studied human psychological bias seems to have originated deep in our evolutionary past. When it comes to spotting the face of predators in the jungle, it’s much better to occasionally jump the gun and see what isn’t there than it is to miss what is. It is this psychological tendency that allows us to see apparent references to Blakean mythology in some of Shardcore’s pictures. As a result, we focus our attention on these and overlook all the other AI-produced images, which are indeed random and meaningless.

As Blake saw it, how we perceive the world reveals as much about us as it does the material world outside. As he once wrote: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.” We project ourselves out onto the world and the result is as much a self-portrait as it is an objective perception of reality.

A good example of this happens when we look at AI. When we focus on this massively powerful pattern-recognition machine, we cannot help but also project our qualities of human awareness and imagination on to it, when they are just not there. This is why science-fiction writers repeatedly see robots and computers as becoming like us, when in reality they are very different beasts. Indeed, this tendency to humanise can blind us to what the machines actually are. AI is a profoundly significant tool that will radically shape and alter society, and worrying that it is going to become sentient distracts us from the important questions of who is using it and for what aims.

Blake, I suspect, would grasp this immediately, if he were a 21st century citizen. The fear that AI contradicts his belief in the importance of the human imagination, in contrast, is probably not one that he would lose too much sleep about. We may tell ourselves that machines are reproducing human creativity, but if you had an understanding of imagination like Blake did, you would see AI-generated images as a very different phenomenon altogether.

William Blake Vs The World by John Higgs is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in hardback, ebook and audio

Interact: Responses to William Blake vs AI

  • Newsletter #30 – John Higgs
    22 Sep 2021 12:48
    […] a headmashing article about Blake and AI that I wrote for Big Issue North – it includes some freaky Blakean imagery created by […]

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