Vast Extras: Peter Burton

The Reflections of Electric Dreams

“I’m not sure what it is to be alive and to move and to have all of my faculties activated. But I will try and make sense of this strange dream.” Talk to Transformer (direct, AI-generated quote)

. . .

Back in February 2019, OpenAI – a research laboratory working on artificial general intelligence – announced that it had created a language model capable of generating synthetic text to an “unprecedented quality”. This was achieved by training the artificial intelligence (AI) model, using 40GB of internet text, to “predict the next word, given all the previous words” of any given input text. Once trained, this model could generate novel, coherent text by adding words to any seed phrase – a sentence, a paragraph, a question – using this predictive skill.

Independently from OpenAI, machine learning engineer Adam King developed a simple interface that allows anyone to explore the AI model. He named it Talk to Transformer (TtT) (NB at the time of writing, Talk to Transformer was the demo version of a larger AI-based text generator known as InferKit). Type in a seed phrase and you will receive an output of AI-generated text up to a few paragraphs in length. Although the GPT-2 model, as it is known, is not usually anywhere near dangerously convincing at generating intelligible, article-sized text, as was first claimed by OpenAI, TtT produces plenty of understandable sentences and paragraphs. As an example, suitable for the nature of the Vast anthology, I asked TtT “ What will the future science of consciousness reveal?” This was the first reply:

Here, we discuss three different hypotheses for the future of consciousness. The most obvious objective mechanism for consciousness is for a brain to trigger an experience. The brain does that to feel like it is inside a body. From there, you can do most of what a person can do, including visual perception, movement, memory, language, sensation, and so on. All of those things depend on sensors (like the ones in your eyes) and on signal processing from your brain to your senses. But you can’t

Not bad, right? It certainly feels like it’s getting going on the correct topic in a reasonably literate manner, but as is often the case with text outputs from AI, what it says doesn’t mean very much. Although, in my opinion, it did come up with a strangely intriguing concept – the idea of a brain creating experience to “feel like it is inside a body”. The reason for AI text not making much sense is largely because the AI has no capacity to understand what it is saying; it does not know what the words or sentences it produces mean in a human sense. It can only mimic meaningfulness, having mined the patterns of vast amounts of human meaning communicated to one another on the internet. Without the ability to understand what language is for (or have the intentionality possessed by humans that gives us a reason to communicate), to make a coherent piece of text the GPT-2 AI model simply picks a word that it considers a human would most likely pick given the contents of the text that preceded it.

Essentially, in models like GPT-2, language is being treated as data, removed from context and meaning, and converted into statistical likelihoods. Similar in principal, as Will Knight points out in an article for the MIT Technology Review, as to how AI can master games such as chess and Go. Knight also discusses that although this kind of deep learning is very successful for tasks such as image and voice recognition, understanding language is ​different because it consists of arbitrary symbols. And as words can have several different meanings, these symbols in themselves are ambiguous. Determining the relevance of multifaceted symbols is a crucial difficulty AI needs to overcome on its way to human-like intelligence.

The problem of relevance, as described by Peter Hankins in his book The Shadow of Consciousness , reveals something interesting about how AI operates and why it currently struggles to achieve certain tasks. Essentially, when determining the appropriate relevance of something – the intended meaning of a particular word or phrase, say – it would seem a computer needs to rule all the irrelevant options out first. Although spotting relevance seems a trivial task to us, if an AI was given the task of translating a completely unknown language, determining relevance by ruling out irrelevant options would become a potentially indefinite task. As Hankins put it, “any machine that needs to understand natural language will have to deal with an infinitely large number of possible interpretations of any input and it will never be able to eliminate ambiguity from its own output.” It is obvious that humans do not have to go through such a process when determining relevance. But how we do it is unclear.

Despite the successes of deep learning, the concept of meaning , it seems, is currently difficult for AI to implicate. An AI that understands language, some suggest, may even be impossible. Hankins discusses the possibility that some aspects of human thought, such as determining relevance, may well be non-computable. Hankins brings up the tiling problem and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems to show that it is a concept with precedent and theoretical backing. That such, non-logical thought processes are likely to be occurring in human minds is certainly an interesting consideration for any theory of consciousness.

In his article, Knight talks to a number of AI researchers. One, Fei-Fei Li, points out that computers, although vastly superior in dealing with complex computations involving lots of data, lack the human qualities of “abstraction and creativity”. What was being suggested is that to become a truly understanding entity, AI must become more human. Of which language is an essential part. How becoming more human might be possible, and whether we can comprehend what that even means in our own subjective terms, let alone computational ones, is another matter. Whatever the future brings, it is clear that the advances and limitations of AI will also inform us of what it means to be human.

Despite the complexities surrounding the development of a language-comprehending AI, the fact that the GPT-2 model produces intelligible text, without formal instruction of the rules of language, has an interesting implication. As the method of text-production relies on having learned from the patterns our written language takes, the AI-generated text could be seen as a curious mirror to ourselves. What we are seeing when we read the written output is a peculiar amalgam of our predictability, our collective consciousness. And as we are meaning-seeking creatures, we can find meaning in what it writes even when none was intended.

. . .

While experimenting with AI-generated text I found myself seeding it with the phrase: ‘Last night I had the strangest dream.’ I was struck by how often the text produced following this phrase was infused with a surreal dream logic, where strange and unpredictable jumps in topic or narrative occurred. The AI, more often than not, effectively described to me a dream. It is an interesting possibility, considering the AI text could be seen as a reflection of ourselves – our dream-selves in this instance – that the body of internet text GPT-2 learned​ from could have contained many dream reports. Whatever the case regarding the source material influencing the creation of these dreams, the prose produced by this seed phrase bordered on the incoherent yet alluded to something tangible, as if it had come from an uncanny hinterland between sense and obscurity. Much like real dreams.

Naturally, there is a wide range of opinion regarding the function and importance of dreams. Some believe they are the random fallout of neural mechanisms engaged in the processing of our daytime, conscious experiences. Any coherent narrative or meaning we find in them upon waking is simply a result of our tendency to apply post hoc rationalisation to preceding events. Others have postulated that the dream consciousness is a secondary consciousness created in childhood; a place which acts as a testing environment for movements and emotions, or a training ground – a dream dojo – in which our minds recreate the perils of conscious existence in order to be better prepared for challenges in our waking state. Or maybe, some suggest, dreams are the spasms of memory association, similar to the eruptions that occur during our conscious state. The list of theories is a long one. But beyond seeing dreams as functional processes relating to brain physiology and evolutionary fitness, or as a purposeless epiphenomenon, plenty believe dreams have a deep psychological significance.

Certain schools of psychology suggest that it is important for our mental wellbeing to pay attention to the content of our dreams. They suggest dreams can contain a crucial form of self-knowledge – messages from our unconscious that could help us find a better balance of the neurotic, opposing tendencies that operate in our minds. Those of a more Freudian persuasion would tend to see the messages from dreams as being repressed desires and fantasies, often sexual in nature. Jungians, however, see something more complex in them – a code hidden in symbolic forms that, if understood correctly through a lengthy journey of ​interpretation and analysis, could lead someone through the process of individuation. A desirable mental state Jung saw as a harmonious balance between the unconscious and conscious parts of our psyche.

In her foreword to a collection of Jung’s writing on dreams, simply titled Dreams , Kathleen Raine describes dreams as a “living oracle”. She also describes the inner world in which they occur as “individual, incommunicable but at the same time (as Jung believed) shared and universal.” The universality of our shared, but separate, inner dream worlds is represented symbolically in the form of archetypes. Archetypes tend to defy definition, but Robert Bonomo in his film The Twenty-One Faces of God describes them as “grand collective metaphors” and “the meaning behind the facts and data. They are the ultimate truth of the rational world.”

There are innumerable archetypes, and they take many forms. There are archetypal events, such as birth or initiation or a shipwreck, archetypal figures, such as the hero, the sage or the trickster. There are archetypal creatures too, like the snake or the cat. Images, objects and colours also. Concepts like silence or paradox. Even numbers.

It is in their nature to be wide-ranging abstractions, but archetypes tend to encompass a set of traits we understand as a whole, despite defying logical categorisation and comprehensive, accurate definition. Whether or not dreams operate in the manner Jung speaks is clearly open to debate, but that we can understand archetypes, both the concept and individually, despite the lack of a formal definition, speaks to a human mechanism of subjective meaning-determination that is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to recreate using the computational methods currently defining AI. Put in simpler terms, computers just can’t get the gist of things in the manner we find straightforward.

When considering the theories on dreams in relation to those produced by the AI model after seeding with the phrase ‘Last night I had the strangest dream’, it is intriguing to note that there was a lot more in them than common dream motifs, such as being found naked in public or having one’s teeth fall out. In fact, these routine anxieties rarely occurred. The AI dreams felt highly symbolic in nature, significant in a way, commonly containing, as they did, a number of images that are considered archetypal in nature, such as owls, mirrors, gateways, blood, shadowy messengers, holes leading underground, and many other such things, as will become clear later.

As the text produced by the AI was often highly literate, especially in the fascinating manner that was appearing when prompted by the concept of strange dreams, I took a notion that it was possible to extract something meaningful from it – get the gist of it, so to speak. And by doing this, I could produce an experimental story using text generated by TtT as the foundation. The short piece, titled ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream’, that follows this introduction is the result.

As a long form, conventional narrative was far beyond our abilities, the collaboration with TtT consists of a series of loosely connected vignettes. Something akin to a series of dream reports from an individual undergoing analysis. Each section – each dream – is based on the few paragraphs of text generated from repeated seeds with the phrase ‘Last night I had the strangest dream’. I spruced the text up a little, carried themes through into other sections, and made corrections for lucidity and tense. But a lot of TtT’s text remains completely unaltered, and each section is largely based on a single output.

So you can get a feel for what the AI-generated dreams are like unedited, I’ve added three examples of the direct output from Talk to Transformer at the end of this piece.

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

By GPT-2 (via Talk to Transformer) and Peter Burton

I seek the company of strangers when I dream. We help each other find the things that were not there before. The things that can only be found when we dream as one. When they visit and speak the words ‘Last night I had the strangest dream…’ I listen keenly to what follows. For in their tales of extraordinary things there are essential signs both scarce and strange. The way to the surface is a narrow one, they say. But the nightmares tell me what I need to know…

Last Night I had the strangest dream I was alone in my room, staring from the bed at the open doorway. There was nothing else to look at. I got up to close the door but I didn’t have the strength to shut it.

A tiny sphere made of black feathers floated into my bedroom from the darkness beyond the doorway. It spoke to me:

“He can’t let you close the door. He needs someone else to watch the world, so the world can be made to obey him.”

Even if I had managed to close that door, I know now that I would still have to listen to the sounds of the universe.

Last Night I had the strangest dream. In some distant land, surrounded by a vast sea, lived people, not the usual humans, but extraordinary and beautiful beings. They surrounded ​me, speaking in a mysterious language as wonderful as the land was strange. As they led me away I fell into a hole, through the floor and out of sight. They carried me back so I could be placed in a strange machine. When I came out I was naked and covered with dust. The doors were all closed; the old machine was still spinning; and outside, in a deep valley, the moon was rising. I saw a tall, dark figure standing in the shadow of a thick tree. They held up a limp white hand that I could not decipher.

Last night I had the strangest dream. A large owl, with the feathers of a crow, sat on the edge of a small window sill. I watched closely as it began to circle my arm. I could hear it speaking to me. An entire world spun around its eyes and all I could hear was humming bird music.

In every direction, the owl moved away from me; its entire body was made of bone and metal. Then, as if by some unseen command, it dropped its leg. As this limb slid down, it took the small of my back and tried to drag me onto the window sill, but the leg didn’t have the strength and collapsed onto the floor. I also fell to the ground and found the leg lying on me. From the top of this leg a new pair of wings emerged. I could see them glinting and shining as they began to unfold, filling with magical energy, until the rest of the creature lifted off the floor and disappeared into my dream.

Last Night I had the strangest dream. I was walking down an empty hall and came to a dark, silent room filled with hidden creatures and archaic machinery. At the back of the room was a mirror. To my side was a strange man who looked like a man from another dream. He was tall and had a long mane of jet-black hair. One hand was completely limp and as white as snow.

I walked a few feet away and the man turned to face me. He pointed to the mirror and spoke:

“Sometimes there’s something I can see in that mirror which is not there.”

The door I came through slammed shut and I realised: I was the last of the humans I knew as a child.

Last night I had the strangest dream. The lights were on in my bedroom, but they didn’t illuminate the entirety of the room. From the darkness came the man with long black hair. He walked to the side of my bed and shoved his head under my pillows. He began to scream and my heart stopped. I cannot describe the pain.

When he stopped screaming he spoke:

“How terrible it feels to learn to love someone you don’t like and still be grateful for their love.”

I was now on my knees with my head resting on the mattress. I began to cry, and I felt so strongly like an animal in a cage. I felt so ashamed of myself for doing anything out of kindness on this bed.

Last night, I had the strangest dream. I was sat in a bathtub full of cold blood. There were bloody chunks of matter all over the walls and floor. A woman I didn’t recognise came to the doorway and stood there calmly staring at me. She wore a white bathrobe with a black feather sewn onto the chest pocket. Her ghost hands hung limp from her outstretched arms as she walked towards me. Leaning over, she looked me in the eye and asked if I wanted to ​wash. I tried to stammer out a response, but she didn’t let me finish. She told me everything was going to be okay, she told me, “This water was what made me human.”

Last night I had the strangest dream . “Morning,” I said to my brother, who was pacing round our camp. “You sleepwalking? Your clothes are soaked in blood.”

“Blood is good,” said my brother. “Let us try to find a place for our clothing to dry.”

In the woods, a river flows under a bridge,” I said. “When we make an entrance to the water, we are sure to be greeted by a wide variety of insects — they will be attracted to the scent of our bodies.”

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was followed by a man who I had never seen before. He was holding a camera.

“Hey, Honey,” he said. “Did you get our message?”

He held out his camera so I could see the display screen. A video was playing. It depicted me and the cameraman talking. In the movie I asked the cameraman, “Did you get our message?” and the cameraman responded, “Yes.”

The video paused without warning at a frame zoomed in on an image of me. The cameraman looked up from the screen and asked, “Who did you get our message from?”

I was confused. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. He held out the camera and invited me to look more closely at the paused frame. The hand he held the camera with was now as white as bleached cotton. In this picture of me, the paused image, I had also, like his hand, changed. I was now wearing an orange dress.

“Did you get our message, Honey?” He said.

Last night I had the strangest dream . I’m walking down the street holding a baby in my arms. An older gentleman walks alongside me. When the baby’s eyes open, she tells me the name of the old man I am with. My vision becomes blurry, and my heart starts to pound. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m afraid to move, afraid of what else I’m going to find out. A black cloud of smoke comes to engulf me. The last thing I remember is the old man pulling at his hair.

Last night I had the strangest dream. In the dream, I woke up covered in cold sweat. I had been transported to my childhood home. I was so confused. Once again there was a lack of information. Who was going to help me? What was my purpose of coming here? I became terrified, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me. I decided to search the house, but stopped when I came upon an orange door that was not there when I was a child.

I decided to call the police about this door but only got an operator. I told them I needed to contact someone because my body had been ‘tapped’ somewhere, and my mind was ‘tapped out.’ I said I had a pretty good idea what the ‘tap’ was as I had previously experienced a dream where someone had given my body a ‘power over.’ I knew this someone was involved in my current situation.

I asked the operator whether there was any way to contact the police directly. Were there any plans? She told me there had been reports that the suspect, the one with the long raven hair, was in another town for medical appointments. But I knew different, I knew they stood behind that orange door.

Finally, I was put through to the police and they asked me if their suspect was in my closet. I said I didn’t know how to reach the closet. I said I didn’t recognise my childhood home anymore. “Try the orange door,” the police officer said. So I did. And when I entered the room behind that door, I felt my body transform so very clearly. My stomach turned. I knew there was something else I had to do.

Last night I had the strangest dream. She had come into the back of my classroom wearing an orange dress that looked like it was woven from the skin of an animal, or the skin of a person. The colour highlighted her long black hair. I was certain she was the new principal of the school I worked in. That is, until I saw the blue flower she had planted in the middle of a wall. I knew with certainty that this flower came from an old red flower that fell off a tree when it was young and had no other flowers to share its life with. When I looked back from the flower, she wasn’t in the room anymore. All my students sat as still and silent as statues, staring at the space where the woman had disappeared without a trace. It was then I believed that I had woken up. I spotted a strange looking object lying on my bed. A platinum seed. When I touched it I felt an energy coming from me. My shadow was being summoned back to life so it could come and be my friend. My shadow was being reborn. I started to feel like I was in charge; a rare sensation for me. Then I realised I had to get rid of that strange object, so I got on one knee and asked my shadow if it would dance with me. I urged my shadow towards me so I could kiss it on the cheek. I told my shadow I was sorry. And then, looking down upon me, my shadow spoke:

“I would love to dance.”

The End.

Examples of the Original Text produced by Talk to Transformer:

Dream #2

Last Night I had the strangest dream. In some strange, distant, and wonderful land, surrounded by a vast sea, were people, not the usual human beings, but strange and beautiful beings; they surrounded me and they spoke to me with a mysterious language; they talked in tongues I had never heard before, and their language was as wonderful and wonderful as the strange land was. Then they led me out, and there I fell into a hole in the ground, through the floor, out of sight. They carried me back, and had already put me in a strange machine. When I came out, it looked as if I had been in it, but I was quite naked, and covered with dust. I went through the doorway. The doors were closed; the old machine was still spinning; and outside, in a deep valley, the moon was rising. I saw a great, dark figure standing in the shadow of a thick tree, and there was a white hand which I could not decipher; it looked a bit like the hand of a woman, with the hair in the right place and the eyes on the

Dream #6

Last night, I had the strangest dream. I woke up in a bathtub full of blood. It was black and bloody, with all kinds of horrible, bloody stuff all over the floor and walls. After about a minute or so, a girl stood there calmly, staring at me. She was wearing a white bathrobe with a black and white heart on it, which was made on a sewing machine. She walked over to me, her hands at her sides. She looked me in the eyes and asked me if I wanted to wash. I was surprised by this – to understand this was a hallucination, I must have forgotten that we went up to the bathtub in the middle of the night.​

Now I don’t remember that I actually washed, but what I do remember is that the bathtub looked like a huge, black, white mass, that I thought was all my own blood with a little pink mark or two near the top. It went from me to her, and there, there it went. Then, at some point, the bathtub was no longer a mass and it actually was very, very cold – around freezing when I was in it.

Then, the girl didn’t let me finish – she told me that this water was what made me human. She looked at me, and said, “It’s okay. It just made you human.”

Dream #11

Last night I had the strangest dream. It started off as a dream about a little boy I met. He was wearing a cute, white, and silver turtleneck jacket that he used to go to school in and an orange long dress. I guess I thought he was the principal, that is until I saw that a blue flower was planted on a wall in the middle of the room. When I looked back it immediately became clear that he wasn’t in the room, and no one was. No one was moving, just looking. The flower came from an old, red flower that fell off a tree when it was young and had no other flowers. At this the young boy I met disappeared without a trace. He could just be gone. His friends had gone home, so I looked up and I spotted a strange looking object lying on a bed. When I touched it I felt a strange energy coming from me. I think my spirit was being summoned to come to life and be my friend. My soul had been reborn. I could sense who the person was, just by looking at him. I then started to feel that strange feeling of being in charge. I had to get rid of that thing and I got down on one knee, asked if he wanted to dance with me, and I gave him a kiss on the cheek and told him I was sorry. I would love to dance

~ Peter Burton

For more from Peter Burton, be sure to visit his blog The Perpetual Unfolding.

Now I don’t remember that I actually washed, but what I do remember is that the bathtub looked like a huge, black, white mass, that I thought was all my own blood with a little pink mark or two near the top. It went from me to her, and there, there it went. Then, at some point, the bathtub was no longer a mass and it actually was very, very cold – around freezing when I was in it.

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