Artwork by Elham Ataeiazar
Artificial intelligence scares a lot of people, even in the tech world. Just look at how industry insiders have co-opted a sprawling monster called a shoggoth as a semi-ironic symbol of their rapidly progressing work.
But their online memes and references to the creature — which originated in influential author HP Lovecraft’s short story “At the Mountains of Madness” — aren’t quite perfect, according to the world’s top Lovecraft expert. , ST Joshi.
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If anyone knows Lovecraft and his miserable menagerie, which includes the ever-popular Cthulhu, it’s Joshi. He edited tons of Lovecraft collections, contributed dozens of essays on the author, and wrote more than a dozen books about him, including the monumental two-part biography “I Am Providence.”
So, after the New York Times recently published an article of tech columnist Kevin Roose explaining that the shoggoth had become “the most important meme in AI”, CNBC reached out to Joshi for his opinion – and to find out what he thought Lovecraft would say about the agitated tribute of the world of technology.
“While I’m sure Lovecraft would be grateful (and amused) at the application of his creation to AI, the parallels aren’t very exact,” Joshi wrote. “Or should I say, it seems the creators of the AI aren’t quite accurate in their understanding of the shoggoth.”
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First of all, it’s “shoggoth”, not “shoggoth”, Joshi said. The uppercase version of the word, as it is spelled in the Times article, has indeed appeared in numerous editions of “At the Mountains of Madness”, which was first published in “Astounding Stories” in 1936, the year before Lovecraft died at the age of 46. But decades ago, Joshi discovered that Lovecraft himself lowercased it in his manuscript and typescript of the sci-fi/horror tale set in Antarctica.
“It’s a species name, not a proper name,” Joshi wrote in an email to CNBC.
But it’s a small downside. There are more important thematic things to consider.
Workers and others in the field of generative AI use the shoggoth meme, which often appears as a wavy cartoon adorned with eyes and appendages, to recognize the technology’s mysterious and sometimes frightening potential. “That some AI insiders refer to their creations as Lovecraftian horrors, even as a joke, is unusual by historical standards,” Roose wrote in his Times column.
Recent advances in generative AI have already prompted references to sci-fi classics such as “The Terminator” and “The Matrix”, or the chilling sci-fi story of Harlan Ellison”I have no mouth and I have to scream“, all of which depict a sinister artificial intelligence wiping out most of humanity.
Bringing Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors into the mix might seem like overkill at this point, even if technology creates some weird stuff. For example, a recent Toronto Blue Jays fake ad, created by a TSN producer which used text-video artificial intelligence technology, is full of horrible pictures like people feasting on each other’s hot dog tentacles.
the shoggoth meme creatorknown by the Twitter account @TetraspaceWest, said the inspiration came from the fact that Lovecraft’s monsters are “indifferent and their priorities are totally alien to us and don’t involve humans, which I think will be true about a possible future powerful AI”.
Amazing Stories – February 1936 (Street & Smith) – HP Lovecraft’s ‘To the Mountains of Madness’. Artist Howard V. Brown, 1936
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The meme also tries to put a happy face on the shoggoth – literally – as it usually depicts the monster sporting a smiling emoji on a tentacle. This is in reference to efforts to train language models to be nice, according to the Times. It also reads as a commentary on the futility and absurdity of trying.
Lovecraft’s shoggoths probably wouldn’t go along with the idea of sending a friendly signal, and in the story they’re certainly not indifferent to their creators, whom they’re trying to usurp.
While artificial intelligence is machine-based, the monsters in the novella are biologically-bred slave creatures that develop their brains and willpower of their own, Joshi pointed out. Lovecraft describes a shoggoth as a column of fetid black iridescence “consisting of ‘protoplasmic bubbles, slightly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and contorting into pustules of greenish light’.
A big concern among people who fear AI is that programs will one day outsmart humans and take over. There is no parallel event in Lovecraft’s story. The shoggoths do not end up surpassing their masters, the ancient Elders, “in intelligence or any other ability,” writes Joshi. “Lovecraft clearly asserts the opposite.”
That’s not to say the meme totally misses the mark.
In the story, the shoggoths rise up against the Ancients in a series of slave revolts that surely contribute to the collapse of Ancient society, Joshi notes. The AI anxiety that has inspired comparisons to the cartoon monster image certainly resonates with the ultimate fate of this society.
“So the general metaphor of an artificial creation overwhelming its creator has some sort of parallel to AI (or fears of what AI might do in the future), but it’s a pretty inaccurate parallel” , Joshi wrote.
But even this flawed metaphor fits well with what happens in Lovecraft’s story, which describes a once-grand civilization that had too many problems to solve.
In our world – a world beset by toxic smoke from wildfires and water shortages, violent insurgencies in democracies and the most military fighting in Europe since World War II – AI is only part of a whole. There’s a lot of hype and confusion around this, as well as positive potential. There are also real concerns, including how AI could act as an accelerator of bigotry and extremism, or as a driver of misinformation, or as a job killer.
In the short story, the Old Ones fall prey to various threats, including attacks from rival entities from outer space. The story ends with insinuations of even more heartbreaking horrors that lie beyond the mountains of madness.
In reality, humans may well scale these terrible heights with the help of AI, but only if we let them. Maybe we should be the ones wearing the smiling faces.