Close encounters with the third kind

Dream Machine: AI and the Real World is a praiseworthy attempt to create a hybrid narrative fusing polemic, meditation, and fiction.

Published : Apr 04, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

A page from Dream Machine.

A page from Dream Machine. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

We should beware geeks bearing gifts. We may think our tools are for our convenience, but as many thinkers, from Jacques Ellul through Neil Postman to Cathy O’Neil have warned, our tools have a nasty habit of remaking us for their convenience. The graphic novel Dream Machine, the result of a collaboration between Laurent Daudet, an AI researcher, and Appupen, an Indian graphic artist, is also such a cautionary project. It seeks to alert us to the dangers of corporate-controlled generative artificial intelligence (gen AI).

Dream Machine: AI and the Real World
By Appupen and Laurent Daudet
Pages: 160
Price: Rs.599

The book’s title is an interesting juxtaposition of words. Dreams are illogical, creative, and unpredictable, which are not adjectives one would associate with machines. Typically, when a project is marketed through an oxymoron—“sustainable mining”, “safe cigarettes”, “peacekeeper missiles”, “compassionate conservatism”, “conscious capitalism”, “green development”—then chances are the project is a marriage of convenience between vice and virtue. But as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty scornfully explained to Alice, when a word can mean many things, then “the question is, which is to be master—that’s all.”

Graphic novel of ideas

Still, the title is apt, precisely because of this question. The crux of the novel is whether the ascent of algorithms to human-level intelligence could lead to a descent of humans to algorithmic predictability. Our tools are supposed to extend us, not diminish us. Gen AI is not a tool like any other. Things like hammers, pumps, and steam engines are tools of the first kind: tools built for a few specific tasks. Things like lathes and 3D printing machines are tools of the second kind: tools that make tools. But gen AI—software programs like ChatGPT, Stable Diffusion, DALL-E, and their descendants—is like us: tools of the third kind. We know what these tools are meant to do. What we do not know is what they would not be able to do. Their limits will be limits of the imagination.

Cover of Dream Machine.

Cover of Dream Machine. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Whose imagination? For now, our imaginations. Or more accurately, the novel suggests, the limits set by the imaginations of our brilliant scientists, the billionaire capitalists who pay them, and the politicos “elected” to keep the masses in line. Unfortunately, these tend to be authoritarian imaginations.

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Dream Machine asks us to resist. It asks us to imagine that we, the little people, will organise to ensure that gen AI and its successors are used to create a moral world based on reason, freedom, and justice. This is a graphic novel of ideas, part polemic and part meditation on the technologist’s dharma.

I cannot think of too many predecessors. Kate Beaton’s big-oil memoir, Ducks, has a similar ambition and feels closest in spirit. Doxiadis and Papadimitriou’s Logicomix also comes to mind, but other than a shared interest in logic and reasoning, Logicomix belongs to the genre of graphic novels centred around science celebrities; there are similar works on Richard Feynman, Marie & Pierre Curie, Charles Darwin, and Ada Lovelace & Charles Babbage. Aldous Huxley called for a hybrid narrative form that would be “a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one’s ideas, a novel like a hold-all”. Dream Machine deserves credit for making the attempt at such a fusion. Where the work shines is in describing the complex new technology and its problems. Unfortunately, the fictional aspect is less effective.

Chatting and dreaming

The story’s plot is a simple one. Hugo, the founder of KLAI, a small pioneering gen AI start-up, is approached by REALE, a global digital corp. Initially, REALE only wants to contract KLAI’s technology, and as Hugo hesitates to become a part of the company’s consumer totalitarianism, REALE’s offers get ever more tempting. Hugo has a wife, Anna, who, Hugo tells us, “anchors his dreams”. Regrettably, little use is made of Anna other than having her listen to Hugo’s worries and explanations.

A panel from Dream Machine.

A panel from Dream Machine. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The other characters—an entrepreneur friend, a research professor friend, co-founders, colleagues—also have viewpoints rather than characterisations. Another hazard with idea-centric fiction is the overuse of dialogue to convey ideas. Characters meet in cafés and talk; they meet at conferences and talk; they meet in office rooms and talk. We learn the sinister plans of REALE through these chats, but it is all offstage. Many of the dialogues are informative rather than conversational.

Interspersing these many meet-and-chats are Hugo’s dreams, featuring the adventures of Super Hugo, complete with utility belt, cape, and visor. Super Hugo articulates Hugo’s anxieties. If Hugo is anxious, say, about data deluge, then in the next few pages, Super Hugo is sure to drown, quite literally, in roiling ocean waves. Dream sequences in fiction usually feel fake or forced. One reason I have long admired Appupen’s artwork (full disclosure: he helped shape the graphic fiction category for a magazine I edit) is that his surreal narratives are an exception to this “usually”. But with this novel’s dream sequences, I am reminded of Freud’s comment to Dali, “…in classic paintings I look for the unconscious, but in your paintings, I look for the conscious.”

Remarkably expressive

That said, Appupen’s artwork is an asset: clean lines, remarkably expressive, striking perspectival framings, and the panels adorned with beautifully balanced, uncluttered lettering that makes the novel easy to read.

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Personally, I look forward to an acceleration rather than a deceleration in our development of AI. However, this book has an opposite view that needs to be heard. “Beyond a certain point there is no return,” noted Kafka in The Blue Octavo Notebooks, and then added: “This point has to be reached.” Well, we have reached exactly such a point. Dream Machine is an interesting and pioneering addition to the genre of next steps.

Anil Menon is the author, most recently, of the short story collection The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun.

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