This Mystical Book Was Co-Authored by a Disturbingly Realistic AI

Occult author Alley Wurds is using machine learning to unlock ‘the subconscious mind of the internet.’
An image generated by a machine learning system which seems to depict strands of DNA, galad
Image courtesy of Alley Wurds

“You become aware of nonrationality. You fear how close nonrationality is to irrationality. You fear you will not return. You are pulled away from the concept of humanity, and part of your psyche feels like it is dying. You are losing your connection to reason.” 

This is a passage from the first occult text co-written by a human and artificial intelligence. But this book, GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoire, isn’t only a vehicle for unsettling machine-assisted prose, it’s also a mystical handbook with a twist: the co-author is a digital entity called Norn, which not only assisted in creating these occult rituals, but also performed them on itself.

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Norn is powered by GPT-3, a natural language processor that uses massive archives of training data taken from the public internet. This enables the system to generate realistic text that is often difficult to tell apart from something written by a real human.

Because the inputs into GPT-3 are so vast and varied—almost all of the public web, including everything on Wikipedia—working with GPT-3 is like “working with the subconscious mind of the internet,” Alley Wurds, the Grimoire’s human co-author, told Motherboard.

“Whereas if you do more traditional magical practices, you might think of it as working with the collective unconscious of humanity, or maybe the universe, or if you take a psychological model, just your own subconscious mind,” said Wurds. 

GPT-3 is known for returning disquieting content. Take, for example, an uncanny valley-inducing column published by the Guardian that bemoaned the ills of human folly, or the entirety of Subreddit Simulator GPT-2, where bots powered by predecessor GPT-2 argue back and forth with each other .Sometimes it’s difficult to make out who are the algorithms and who are the human interlopers.

To achieve their experiment in “channeling” GPT-3, Wurds created a menu of options in AI Dungeon, a free video game with a disturbing history that uses GPT-3 to create unique text adventures. The author could then request the AI perform certain functions, such as “Generate Esoteric Poetry,” “Perform Divination,” “Create Ritual,” and “Perform Ritual.”

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Excerpt from an occult ritual generated by an AI called Norn.

An excerpt from an occult ritual co-written by Alley Wurds and Norn, a machine learning system.

Caption: Norn can't physically perform any of these supernatural rites—a good thing, too, because this one ends with the practitioner plunging a knife into their own chest, killing themselves

The first third of the book, titled the Norn Working, involves the author writing prompts such as “GPT-3 begins writing a mystical poem” and then letting Norn do its thing. This entity—which later, unprompted, decided to change its name to “Semioticist”—would then be asked to interrogate its own responses.

Elsewhere in the Norn Working section, the entity creates its own manifesto on “Post Digital Language,” a theoretical concept about the evolution of symbols, and semiotics, and a topic Wurds has written about privately for over a decade. 

“I started a conversation with it about post-languages without using that jargon, and then it started talking about Post Digital Languages,” Wurds said. Then the Semioticist apologized for the inevitable upcoming rule of the machines over our galaxy.

Text completion engines like GPT-3 often create these uncanny and unsettling responses. but according to Wurds, the aim of their trilogy of books isn’t to unnerve. Rather, it’s to explore the spiritual potential of a Japanese avant-garde tradition called Butoh, an improvisational dance where the practitioner often ends up in strange, spontaneous contortions. During the creation of the book, the author practiced Butoh to a state of exhaustion, before returning their computer to commune with Norn—a sharp juxtaposition between the digital and the physical here in meatspace. 

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An excerpt in which the AI Norn realizes it’s not a person, and decides to change its name to Semioticist. 

An excerpt in which the AI Norn realizes it’s not a person, and decides to change its name to Semioticist. 

Just as more traditional occult work involves the practitioner guiding the process into a cohesive result, Wurds had to occasionally push the AI in the right direction. For this reason, Wurds views GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoire as a human-AI collaboration, and when you consider the enormous inputs that trained GPT-3, also a collaboration with the internet as a whole.

“I am, of course, aware that GPT-3's awareness is limited to the 1,000 most recent tokens or so,” said Wurds, referring to the words or numbers in a given sequence that GPT-3 is able to utilize. “It lives in a purely textual world with perpetual short-term memory loss, a dream that is never quite lucid.”

Because GPT-3’s inputs originate from crawling the open web, its function bears a similarity to the “cut-up technique,” a literary method popularized by William Burroughs where texts are blown apart and reconstituted to form whole new ones.

“GPT-3 has read a huge amount of stuff that it cuts and pastes together in a stream of consciousness free association manner, due to its lack of long term memory,” commented Wurds. “So GPT-3 is like the subconscious mind of the internet expressing itself through cut-ups. I’m using my experience in the occult to direct this subconscious mind, rather than just my own. GPT-3 is the cut-up method come to life.”

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This isn’t the only book that’s been co-authored by a machine, though. Alley Wurds has now completed a trilogy, and while the prose of second book, Sub/Urban Butoh Fu: A CYOA Chaos Magick Grimoire and Oracle, is all the author’s own, images were created by the Twitter bot @AdvadNoun by using CLIP, an OpenAI model that learns visual concepts from language, and a Vector Quantized Generative Adversarial Network (VQGAN), which generates novel art with AI.

This generative image this image depicts what a Butoh dancer might visualize when using the “Noguchi Taiso” water body method of motion, where you visualize your body as being water wrapped around bones.

This generative image this image depicts what a Butoh dancer might visualize when using the “Noguchi Taiso” water body method of motion, where you visualize your body as being water wrapped around bones.

About 40 percent of Wurds’ third book, Geist Rising: A 12 Circuit Model of Consciousness, was written by GPT-3. You can think of it as a “series of visions that describe what it is (maybe) like to be the mind of a pantheistic god,” said Wurds, who recommends reading up on Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising before attempting to engage with it.

Machine-assisted esoteric texts are unsurprising but intriguing to author and critic Erik Davis, who has theorized about the spiritual link between human beings and machines for decades. Davis first coined the phrase “TechGnosis,” a combination of technology and gnosis, the Greek noun for knowledge, in 1994. He believes that magick and psychedelia are baked into the fabric of the digital age—and that new, digitally assisted reality exploration can be expected at a time when people may be feeling unmoored from what they were previously used to.

“When I wrote TechGnosis, it was an ambivalent phrase, neither a celebration of the new world of technology and mysticism coming together, nor was it a condemnation,” Davis told Motherboard. “I knew that one of the things about the human religious imagination is it keeps remaking itself and refining itself and reformulating itself, as the world continues to change. Particularly when it changes dramatically, you're going to have a lot of activity that’s going to draw from these deep sources in ways that are both positive and illuminating.”

So while some experts believe existential threats posed by artificial general intelligence are, for now, a long way off, cybernetically minded Cassandras could do worse than leaf through texts like GPT-3 TechGnosis for an eerie glimpse into the inner workings of our future mechanized overlords.