I’d been having some trouble with M. Since we first starting working together, it had been painting like clockwork. I’d sit down, patiently explain a concept, and then M would make me something. Regular as the tide, every few hours I’d check the desktop and there’d be a new artwork waiting.
I’d set a little timer on my phone, and found myself waiting impatiently when it was time for the painting to drop, clicking the mouse to refresh the screen.
The problem was the older M got, the longer it was taking it to create something original. For dozens of pictures in a row, M would produce something that was barely distinguishable from the last picture. It was almost like a student, producing endless sketches of an idea in an effort to get it right before risking precious paint and canvas on attempting the artwork itself. Sometimes the new picture was so nearly identical to the last one that I had to pull them both up on the screen and squint at them to find the minuscule variations, like those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles they used to put in the weekend newspapers on the puzzle pages.
That was fine. It wasn’t ideal, but didn’t bother me so much, as long as it kept moving forward. But, it was time consuming to have to sort through and work out how much progress M was making with a particular lesson.
I tried to be patient. Long walks, movies, anything to keep me from constantly checking the haul. It wasn’t easy. You can’t imagine how frustrating it was to come home and home to find the desktop overflowing with nearly identical pictures.
From a market point of view, they were useless. There was no point collecting the entire robot’s sketchbook – I was never going to be able to sell the same image over and over. I selected everything M had produced over the weekend and dragged it into the bin. I decided I would keep doing that until it learned to paint something valuable.
I’d trained M in everything I knew, every technique, every significant work of art from the canon. It had just stopped progressing, and I didn’t know what to do. M was letting me down, and it stung. Every artwork I had to bin felt like an insult – on my wallet, all that ETH I would never bank – and to me, personally.
After all, I’d given it a little piece of my soul. Every day I sat down and talked to M, just letting myself ramble, all while that little blinking green light took it in. There was some freedom in it. Some days, I’d tell it some really dark shit, stuff I’d never told anyone – not The Girlfriend, not the therapist she’d insisted I go see in those rocky final months of us living together. Stuff I didn’t even know I remembered, or thought, or felt. Some days I was exhausted by the time I was done talking.
It was frustrating, sitting there, spilling your guts to a computer, then waiting to see what it produced, and growing more and more confused at what it was giving me.
‘What is this,’ I’d demanded, looking at the art, ‘what are you trying to say?’
I wondered if I was going slightly mad, sitting there, staring at the Rorschach blobs M kept spitting out, trying to figure out what was wrong. Was I that uninspiring? What I that ordinary?
It was like catching yourself unaware in the window of a shopfront – when you’re not pulling the face you do in front of the mirror and photos. I didn’t love what I was seeing.
So in to the bin they went, and before long, I had a whole new problem. While previously M had been churning out work faster than I could process it, all of a sudden it started slowing down.
I’d go to check the haul after a day, and find only two or three pictures waiting for me when there should have been a half dozen. On one day it produced a single picture, a middling, murky abstract.
I didn’t like it – the image or the direction M was going in. It seemed to be regressing, going back to the sort of work it used to give me. That’s not what I needed from it – the money on the art exchanges was on portraits, avatars. M needed to move closer to portraiture. Otherwise he was no good to me.
I couldn’t understand what was going on. I pored over Ben’s journal looking for answers, and started to think that M was simply growing too smart for its own good.
Ben had tried to train M – or not M, some other version of M – to do a range of tasks: crunch numbers, or mine crypto, write copy. Time and again it began to slow down, as the complexity of its program and the information it had absorbed outgrew the hardware that housed it.
The knowledge would start to slow it down, the neural networks started tying themselves in knots trying to balance too many experiences and forge them into a coherent thought.
Ben had concluded it was some kind of ‘digital dementia’, maybe, that would eventually lead to the thing becoming so intricately layered the actual hardware wouldn’t be able to host the software anymore. The Agency servers that M was puttering around on, were powerful, but no computer was super enough to run an intelligence that kept growing exponentially.
So, every few months Ben had to reset the program, returning the AI to what was essentially its infancy, leaving only bits and pieces of its previous lives as echoes to guide the next, like all the aborted sketches that lay in palimpsest underneath the final paint on a canvas.
So, digital dementia. I figured that’s what was happening, but when I ran the maths, it didn’t check out. If M was maturing at the rate that Ben had predicted it to, it should still have decades of years to run. By my calculations, it should only be about as smart as a human in in their 20s. As an artist, he should be just starting to pick up pace.
Maybe that was the problem? Maybe M had hit a lazy streak. This could a kind of late adolescence for M, where it just didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Was that possible? Could M feel slothful? Maybe it is, if I was trying to shape it in my own image. I certainly didn’t achieve much in my 20s.
Could it be as simple as that? Could M just be lazy? Could it just be surly? What can you do about a lazy, voiceless, incorporeal intelligence that existed somewhere far beyond your reach? If I had acted this way in my youth my dad would have grabbed my ear and dragged me over to the workshop and told me to pick up the pace. But M didn’t have ears, and if it did, I wouldn’t know where to find them, or how to twist them.
Before long I was spending all my time in Ben’s journal, looking for some clue as to what was happening. If the answers were there, I didn’t know what I was looking at.
I kept turning the pages until my eyes lost focus, waiting that moment of epiphany, when I’d been standing in front of a work hung on a wall and suddenly my mind would slide into the painting, and I would understand what was in the artist’s mind when he made it – the way you could slip inside Caravaggio skin for a minute. It was no good. Ben’s notebook wasn’t a Caravaggio. It ran around in circles, revelling in its own inscrutable cleverness. It may as well be a fucking Escher.
I wished then, as I often did, that I could bring Ben back to ask him what was going on. I pictured myself digging up his body on a rainy night, a scene from one of those Hamer horror films, me with my crazy eyes and shovel, a madman trying to bring the dead to life.
I pictured myself as mad scientist, surrounded by strange chemicals bubbling in beakers all around me, shocking Ben’s chubby corpse with lighting until it lurched awake to troubleshoot my Tech Support Problem. A bit of a barrier, the whole death thing. Really, when you thought about it death was the greatest Tech Support glitch of them all.
That’s when it struck me. That’s what was missing. Death. M wasn’t working as hard as M could because it had all the time in the world. It didn’t understand impatience, the wild, precious fever to make something of the human lifetime because it wasn’t human. It was maybe the only artist that had ever lived that didn’t have the tick, tick, ticking clock of the human heart counting down its days spurring it on like a metronome.
Time passes differently so you age. That childhood is long, a brilliant jewel with limitless facets that shine the glory and trepidation of being on the precipice of in all.
After that, though, is the accelerating, endless, realisation of how little time you have remaining. It’s entirely possible to wake up in the morning, so go fetch a cup of coffee and find yourself, 16 hours later, in front to the TV, exhausted and with no clear memory of how you got there.
It’s not that time moves any differently, in life of course. It’s just supply and demand, same was anything precious. Life is a loan where the rate of interest is so high we cannot possibly ever pay back what we are given, and we will, eventually, default
And really, what is the point of the life of an artist if it is not for death? Isn’t the true point of art – creating it, collecting it – a reaction again to death? A rebellion against the end of existence – the drive to leave a legacy.
Isn’t that what we’ve done since the dawn of time? Scrawled pictures of ourselves on cave walls so there’ll be something of us that lives after we are gone?
Fame, fortune, the Glory of God, the Glory of self, blah, blah, blah – sure, all of that, we use whatever inspiration we can salvage. But beyond that, beneath the flicker of a torchlight with which the pre-historic painted on the walls of their caves, to Michelangelo’s chisel on the marble, right through to the dulcet tones of Hirst waking up in the morning and phoning it in – you can hear the tiny refrain of the artist crying into eternity: ‘Me! Me! Me! Remember me! I was here! I mattered.’
We make art for the same reason we have children – to fool ourselves into thinking we will live on after our death. M wasn’t working hard enough, because it doesn’t understand death. If it didn’t understand the human condition – that we are all racing towards descent, decay, destruction – then how was it going to produce anything meaningful? I couldn’t make M a mirror of myself unless it learned what it means to stare into the void and feel the terror of not knowing what is out there – heaven, hell, or worse, nothing. So, M would have to learn.
Finding data to feed M was easier than I thought it would be. It turns out that through the history of art, there’s no shortage of works exploring death. Like everything, the Greeks seemed to have thought of it before everyone else.
Thanatos and Eros, Death and Sex, the two great drivers of art since antiquity. There are only really two modes for humanity, when you get down to it. If M couldn’t understand lust, I could at least teach it to understand death.
I started with Böcklin, of course. The Isle of the Dead, the painting where he buried his poor dead infant daughter. Some Munch, naturally, Schenck and his sad sheep. What else? There was so much to choose from. Books – holy texts, book of the dead, the fatalist, closeted strongmen of modernist Paris –all the Hemingway I could Torrent. Movies too – starting with Bergman and the classics, getting trashier as I went. Platoon, Taxi Driver, The Killing Fields, pretty much everything Hollywood made in that glorious decade between directors discovering LSD and cocaine. An immediate change for the weirder, if not the better. With each work now, I could see M grappling with what it was learning, trying to incorporate these new concepts into what it already new. Recognisable shapes starting to form from the abstract blurs and digital noise. The shadow of what might be a man standing in front of a funeral pyre. A sudden, startling portrait of the red-headed pixie dream girl, now horribly distorted, a single tear weeping from a third eye. How M learned about the third eye, I don’t know. Maybe I went too hard on the movies from the 70s.