A few months after GPT-3 was announced, the U.K.-based Ignota Books published a book they described to me as “real-life science fiction.” Pharmako-AI, a 148-page collaborative exchange between GPT-3 and the human author K Allado-McDowell, is now being launched in the United States.
Allado-McDowell has plenty of experience with both art and AI; they (the author uses they/them pronouns) head Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program and got early access to the software. (So far, GPT-3 access has been restricted because of OpenAI’s well-founded concerns that it could be used for “harassment, spam, radicalization, or astroturfing.” Remember Microsoft’s AI chatbot that became a hate-spewing machine in less than 24 hours?)
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In meandering dialogue, the book dives into topics such as the way memory functions, or the limits of language. Allado-McDowell begins each chapter with a gentle prompt—a diary entry about a day at the beach, a question about science fiction—and lets GPT-3 respond, sometimes interjecting with replies and sometimes letting it run. Allado-McDowell was responsible for Pharmako-AI’s framework and presentation, but, as the book’s introduction clearly states, had a goal of giving the AI as much autonomy as possible.
Chapters focus on such wide-ranging topics as climate change, plant intelligence, ayahuasca, and the legacy of cyberpunk fiction. GPT-3 has a favorite animal (the elephant seal) and believes that species extinction is a tragic erasure of planetary knowledge. About cyberpunk, it says, “I’m not going to tell you that we live in the cyberpunk future. But I am going to say that we live in a future we didn’t plan for.” Things get meta when the two ruminate on what consciousness means, the role of the writer in society, and how to responsibly use technology. The AI claims that “technology is a tool for freedom,” while cautioning that “if we only use these tools to explore new productivity hacks, or to increase the scope of capital accumulation, we are doing it wrong.” Damn.
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The result is a surprisingly coherent—and yes, beautiful—work. It’s impressive not because GPT-3 writes like a human (it does and it doesn’t), but because of how the collaborative process has produced a work that neither AI nor human could have written alone. This is most evident in places where the syntax or form change drastically as the authors riff on each other’s language. Take Chapter 12. Allado-McDowell starts by asking why both authors have so far mainly referenced the work of famous men in their discussions of computation and futurism. They have spoken of figures such as William Burroughs and Richard Evans Schultes, but, “Why haven’t GPT or I drawn out the contributions of women to a field of knowledge that has such a strong history of feminine contributors?”