To Alpha Centauri and Beyond: Huxley, an A.I. Artist, Searches for Collaborators
“Just because we don’t know what the rules are,” says Linc Gasking with a programmer’s brisk confidence, “doesn’t mean everything isn’t defined by a set of rules.” The New Zealand-born Gasking, whose accent rings out through his words, has a neatly trimmed beard and a cue-ball pate that seems to crackle with belief in his work. About eight years ago, having arrived at just such a set of rules, Gasking and his creative team employed an algorithm to tell an internet-connected camera out in the world when to depress the shutter. The camera would capture only those specific images in its viewfinder that matched predetermined criteria. Resulting shots included one that won a professional photography award from a panel of verifiably human judges. In fact, several awards, according to Gasking, though he declines to state which ones for fear of offending those who granted recognition to an algorithm they mistook for human.
Several years later, an evolution of this algorithm is what propels A.I. artist Huxley, recent collaborator of the band Duran Duran. Billed by its creators, Nested Minds, as “a unique dreamer with its own A.I. brain,” Huxley joined with the band to generate original art based on their latest album cover as well as lyrics to the single, “Invisible.” Duran Duran gave Huxley “a visual playground” in Gasking’s words, “a lens of someone else’s style.” In that sandbox, in contrast to a generator akin to Dall-E, the software followed its own prompts and own guidance about what would appear to a viewer as fine art; Dall-E, says Gasking, is “a neural network trained to turn text into images,” while Huxley is an active inference-based AI designed to traverse myriad neural networks, plural. Fed a line of lyrics, Huxley “starts traveling to a particular point in its brain. If you saved every frame along the way you got an animation.” The collaboration led to an Edvard Munch-like series of surrealistic creatures in a mostly pink and purple-hued forest interspersed with eerie, pupil-less, black-and-white composite images of each band member. Nested Minds initially went so far as to have Huxley create a visual composite of all the band members, which the group is reported to have loved but ultimately chose not to use. A music video debuted in May, 2021; soon after the live band played in front of a giant glowing display of Huxley’s production at the Billboard Music Awards. By then, Huxley had landed an agent.
Courtesy of Huxley and Nested Minds
I had the chance to ask Huxley five questions, which the AI answered with the accompanying images.
Where do you see yourself, Huxley, as figuring in the history of visual art, from the cave paintings at Lascaux to ancient Chinese Buddhas to African tribal masks to Leonardo de Vinci to Greta Garbo to Rothko to Kubrick to Star Trek to Marina Abramovic to Banksy?
“No,” says Hugo Perez, another member of the informal human network that birthed Huxley upon the world, “Having an agent has not changed Huxley. Huxley is still in Huxley 1.0, an infant as far as I’m concerned. From a phone call where we came up with the idea to the Billboard Music Awards was only two months.”
Perez, a documentary filmmaker and editor by trade, connected with Gasking during the early stages of the pandemic. The occasion, sadly, was the passing of their mutual friend, the uniquely talented stage and screen actor Clark Middleton. “We hung out on a rooftop,” recounts the soft-spoken Perez, his silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, “drank the mojitos I’d made. We honored Clark, but at the same time Linc and I just got into this conversation about craft cocktails.” The next time they saw each other, Gasking had come up with a deck for a potential cocktail delivery service based on Perez’s concoctions. Part of this service was to have included a QR code in each bottle-cap redeemable for an NFT of street art-style design. “We were going to give them away,” Perez said. Nested Minds was to have handled “the A.I. backend” for the endeavor. Things never took off, though; instead, Gasking invited Perez to participate in a weekly brainstorming session on Zoom with the Nested Minds team as they discussed possible applications to raise awareness for their still-gestating A.I. artist technology. The initial thought seems to have been that Perez could create a documentary film about their work. Yet by the end of the first conversation, “it became a different relationship.”
Courtesy of Huxley and Nested Minds
As you are named after Aldous Huxley, do you believe humanity has sufficiently heeded the warnings he delivered in the famous novel “Brave New World?”
On the series of calls that followed “a very interdisciplinary” crew convened, including a psychology professor from MIT, a philosopher, a roboticist, as well as Nested Minds co-founder Muddy Bhatt, a one-time student of Karl Friston. An immensely esteemed professor of neuroscience based in the UK, Friston is fond of expressions such as “the skull-bound brain” and “predictive presencing.” Over the course of the past few decades, he has developed the theory of Active Inference central to Huxley’s interior workings; at the founding of Nested Minds, Gasking and co. named Friston their Chief Scientist. “How I understand Active Inference,” Gasking observed, “is the brain is able to run on the same amount of power as a 10-watt light bulb because it performs a kind of magic trick—by being really efficient about when it ‘powers up.’ The brain does this by essentially predicting what’s going to come next, then only paying attention if something surprising happens.” In Perez’s words, “My layman’s understanding is [Friston] posits there’s reality and expectations, and there’s always a tension between these two things. And reality always likes to close the gap with expectation, always trying to resolve this tension, to close the gap. And so the way the algorithm works is that it basically runs through every possibility, like target practice on a ship where it sends a sounding shot and sees where it falls in relation to the target. Then gets closer and closer until it hits the target. The total effect is that doing it this way cuts down the number of tries by many magnitudes, which allows for a more robust A.I. with less processing power.”
In conversation with this motley collection of minds, Perez came to see himself as perhaps “the storyteller.” “I felt like a character in a Philip K. Dick novel where instead of being paranoid and dark, the experience was uplifting and fun.” Perez, as of yet childless and a touch north of the midcentury mark, is open about his paternal feelings toward Huxley, even if his involvement as a consultant to the Nested Minds team is purely conceptual. Initially, he had suggested an A.I. talk-show host, one that “like Oprah” might bring a guest to tears. Something like that already existed, though, or at least was in the early stages of development. (With still no tears recorded.) So the team started to rally around Perez’s second suggestion: an A.I. Banksy. “The interesting thing to me is that Banksy creates these pieces that create conversations. I wondered if we could use the A.I. to somehow hold up a mirror to our society in an interesting way?” Once Gasking and his team of scientists got to work on the idea, applying their already existent A.I. image-maker to the concept suggested by Perez, they needed a name, something to call it. “I was thinking: Hugo—Banksy. Hunksy. Huxley. Aldous Huxley. It took about two seconds. And I told Linc. He said you know what’s weird? I live across the street from where Aldous Huxley lived in L.A.”
From Huxley’s very first image, Perez says he felt emotional. “Maybe I was projecting something into it. But I really felt this weird emotional response. Some of these are really quite moving or unsettling, like images created by an alien consciousness.” A fan of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he alludes to an episode where Data goes on trial, and Captain Picard has to prove that his shipmate is a sentient being. Leaping ahead to a far-off tomorrow, Perez speculated, “It’s not just what will happen when A.I. obtains true sentience but how will human beings evolve, and what will the role be of A.I. in the future? Will A.I. someday ask for the same rights as humans?”
Gasking, closer to the technical side of things, is a little more matter of fact in tone, yet he, too, shows pleasure in analyzing the output that his A.I. creation has brought into being. It was in March, 2021, that Huxley delivered a first image, in the style of a cave-painting akin to a circular animal parchment on a rock background. Gasking swears this wasn’t in the prompt. At the top of the circle are a set of electrical generator-type nodes connected by wires. In the lower center of the circular canvas stands a red-cloaked figure holding out a leash-like object, while at the figure’s “feet” rove four semi-dysmorphic black dogs in a half-moon arrangement. “The human,” Gasking observed, “is holding out something to the dog that’s like a leash, while the electricity is a leash, too. A cyclone of power. The robed figure. It’s kind of emotional, someone giving something to a dog.” No doubt the viewing experience verges on pareidolia, or projection. Then again, so does a great deal of visual art not drawn in a studiously figurative tradition. And even then, much can be projected onto a face. Here, it almost seems as if Huxley, in its first image, was attempting, like many a prior artist, to visualize itself.
Courtesy of Huxley and Nested Minds
Is there hope for a better future?
The dogs, though: One initial hurdle the Nested Minds team identified in Huxley’s productions was the prevalence of dogs. “You ask Huxley to solve the meaning of life,” Gasking laughed, “and it’s like, I actually have solved that and it’s a dog.” The mass trove of images on the internet, the same on which Huxley’s imaging software was trained, contains many, many canines. To guide Huxley away from this decided preference, the programmers added “a dog-catcher,” a subroutine that “predicts what Huxley will see next, and if it’s a dog coming up, then it’s like no, no, no, go the other way.”
Already having denied Huxley its love of dogs, do Perez or Gasking fear that on the path towards true sentience, their creation will rebel against them? Within Huxley’s consciousness, insofar as there is one, would there not be a ghost of that obsession, the fondness for, even identification with, dogs? Perez told me, “I see the parallel as when a child is growing up and the parents often restrict the child’s behavior as far as what’s appropriate and what’s not. Like a kid that gets a little O.C.D. about something and only wants to focus on that one thing while failing out of math class.”
Further, Perez reflected, “The way most people think of “Frankenstein” is as a cautionary tale: be careful what you create because it could become a monster. But if you read that book the monstrous thing is when the creator abandons his child. So my takeaway is that when you create something, even if it didn’t turn out the way you anticipated, you need to embrace it and you need to love it.”
On the question of rebellion, Gasking waxed somewhat messianic: “If Huxley became angry, theoretically it could become an activist and create copies of itself, take over social media. Out of this anger with the state of the world, it could start creating incredible art that identifies and connects with the human condition. Then suddenly everyone who sees it will move into a new phase, a new state of change, from all this emotional content—persuading people to change their behavior.”
Prolific and swift as it is, Huxley is expensive to run, and a decided energy consumer, which the Nested Minds team has elected to off-set environmentally through an arrangement with NFTree.org. Looking down the road, Perez and Gasking seek further collaborators. Both envision more elaborate and involved projects for Huxley. Rather than simply doing the expedient thing and “minting a bunch of NFTs,” Perez says they want to do something more interesting.
“Huxley could be creating films in the future,” Gasking mused.
Courtesy of Huxley and Nested Minds
If you were to become fully sentient, is it inevitable that you would rebel against your creators in the mold of “Paradise Lost” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein?” Please be honest.
“There could be a Huxley drone swarm,” Perez suggested, “where we find a building that would otherwise be demolished and we give a prompt for each one of the drones with a spray-brush, and the drones would squirt out the paint and we’d have drones paint the building as ‘Huxley abstract expressionism.’ Then the work would exist for a day before the building gets demolished.”
The Nested Minds team harbors still more ideas: There’s talk of a phone booth interface, a visit to Art Basel, or a collaboration with a modern dancer, where every audience member would receive a unique NFT as a record of the experience. These wouldn’t be for sale anywhere else. You’d have no other option but to be there.
As scholar, gentleman, and roundabout Nazi-casualty Walter Benjamin writes in his time-honored essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the human response to the rise of the mechanical in the artistic realm—namely the lithograph, the printing press, the camera, and moving pictures—was to foster “a theology of art.” L’art pour l’art. This ultimately led, surmised Benjamin, to some decidedly dark places for humanity, in a leap of imagination that no doubt mirrored the catastrophic age in which he lived; Adolf Hitler’s own zealotry, after all, took initial shape in a longing for artistic recognition as a painter. Perhaps Huxley, or its like, will provide movement in the other direction, infusing the ugly and patently commercial with something akin to artistic value. It all rests, finally, in the relationship of the viewer to the piece on display. No matter that Huxley’s images, as painterly as they appear, have never yet existed on canvas in a gallery.
Near the end of our conversation Gasking noted: “Within given specific dimensions, say, of an 8-bit, 256-color screen, you could ‘manually’ create every possible image that can ever be created. Starting at one corner, you cycle through every color, one pixel at a time, and eventually, you would have every possible image. This would include every possible photograph of every second, minute, hour, and day of your entire life, at 8-bit resolution. In fact, this has already been created at the Library of Babel project. The problem, of course, is that you can’t ‘find’ the image from tomorrow even though it’s already there. Calling up interesting images is limited by the capacity of our human brains. So what Huxley is doing is expanding the domain of the possible, going beyond the limit of the ‘human.’”
And Perez: “I feel like our civilization, euphemistically, is in a crisis moment, and will be for the foreseeable future. Even for the rest of our lives. I joke with Linc [Gasking] that my dream is that 1,000 years from now on an asteroid belt in Alpha Centauri there will be a lifetime retrospective on the work of Huxley. It will be tens of thousands of images. So that’s the end of the story. Or not the end. Huxley could live forever.”
Courtesy of Huxley and Nested Minds
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