‘I’d never give AI any sort of creative control over my work,’ says artist Appupen, who has a new book called ‘Dream Machine’

‘Dream Machine’, a graphic novel, is written by Appupen and Laurent Daudet, and drawn and adapted by Appupen

Updated - February 23, 2024 11:52 am IST

Published - February 23, 2024 09:30 am IST

Graphic artist and author Appupen

Graphic artist and author Appupen | Photo Credit: Jaideep Unudurthi

In 1863, readers of The Press, a newspaper printed out of a small cottage in Christchurch, New Zealand, were confronted by a strange article. Amidst the usual reports of sheep gone astray, and trends in barley prices, there was a long piece with rousing lines such as “Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life.” 

The author was confident “…that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants...” This piece, written by Samuel Butler, who would later have a career as a celebrated novelist, could equally be a blog post today, a century-and-a-half later. One might argue that machines today possess as much or as little of “consciousness” as they did then, but no one can deny that our reality has been fundamentally reshaped by even the possibility of dreaming, thinking machines. Joining this long tradition of warning against their rise, is Dream Machine (Context), a graphic novel written by Appupen and Laurent Daudet, and drawn and adapted by Appupen.

After my first read, encountering huge chunks of information on themes from particle physics to human rights in Turkmenistan, I reach out to Appupen, who I’ve known for a decade. This is the opposite of “dumbing down”, I tell him. “Done dumbing down,” he replies, “it kills us.” I say that I had to read it with multiple tabs open on my computer. He laughs, “I had to break down the tech stuff exactly like that — with multiple tabs open. Once the tech modules were in, I figured it’s going to be an intense read.”

Digital immortality

Co-author of ‘Dream Machine’, Laurent Daudet, a professor of physics.

Co-author of ‘Dream Machine’, Laurent Daudet, a professor of physics.

The story begins with Hugo Klein — a stand-in for author Daudet — the CEO of a company called KLAI, about to enter into a lucrative deal with REAL.E, a kind of combination of Facebook and Microsoft, headed by Kripp, who is a kind of Zuckerberg and Musk figure. KLAI’s expertise is in Large Language Models (LLMs) and text-based learning — the underlying technology behind generative AI. KLAI’s flagship programme is AiDA, a cute-looking device, not dissimilar to an Amazon Echo or a Siri. 

Hugo understands that the algorithms which his company develops are going to be used by REAL.E to unveil a “metaverse” game that promises a sort of digital immortality. While this deal is being worked out, Hugo meets Ayyo, an artist specialising in “conspiracy comics” from India. After bonding on the impact of AI on art, Ayyo proposes to work on a comic, where “we can try to demystify it. You know all the details and I can tell a story”. The resulting collaboration is also seen interspersed through the book, a kind of superhero comic, drawing on the 1930s Superman look.

Gradually, more disquieting details emerge about REAL.E’s intentions; information, stolen data, is the currency of this new world. Rather appropriately, this hi-tech tale draws on the medieval European legend of Faust, where a scholar signs away his soul to the devil, in return for eternal knowledge and unlimited pleasure. 

Various art styles

A page from ‘Dream Machine’.

A page from ‘Dream Machine’.

The book arose out of a fortuitous meeting between Daudet, a professor of physics, and Appupen, in Angouleme, where the latter was artist in residence. I ask Appupen how it was to work with someone else’s prose for the first time. “I was apprehensive, but Laurent is a great guy to work with. Mostly, he sent me his teaching modules and I had to crunch them and bomb him with doubts and questions. We had agreed that he is the boss of the tech stuff, and I’ll write it into the story and art. I could probe into the areas I wanted more depth in, and generally, if I could understand the info, I thought most people would,” the Bengaluru-based artists says.

The look is visually dense, clocking five to seven panels a page, with varying art styles from Socialist mosaics to old-school comics. Appupen’s experimental underground style is more muted here. “I was looking at a leaner, cleaner style to make it easily accessible to all types of readers. My earlier work mostly catered only to ardent comic fans. I think it’s about finding the right approach needed for each story. Here, I focused on some strong narration to deliver the message, so the images play along and serve the mood,” he says.

Pages from ‘Dream Machine’.

Pages from ‘Dream Machine’.

‘AI can never create’

There are also a lot of inventive details, for instance, the eye glasses of the human characters start resembling screens, while the cyclopean eye of the machine becomes human, albeit all-seeing and unblinking. As perspective shifts, everything becomes circular, enclosing, as if this panoptic eye views everything. A greenish tone is applied throughout, making the pages glint with the furtive excitement of a late night cybercafe from the 2000s. The final chapter is when the serpent eats its tail, as Hugo approaches a decision point, on whether or not to sup with the devil. 

Appupen says that he got AI to do some of the work in the book. Stable Diffusion, an art generative AI, “trained” on over 600 of his drawings from the first half of the book. “If we had 60,000 drawings, it would probably draw just like me. But it will never create, it only reproduces.” The process left him exhausted, however. “We had to try many times, since AI doesn’t know what is good or bad art. I’d never give it any sort of creative control over my work.”

Thanks to my recent search history, my news feed is filled with headlines such as ‘Disney invests $1.5bn in Fortnite maker Epic Games to create new ‘universe’’; ‘Zuckerberg must not be allowed to shape the next era of humanity’; and so on. Then something catches my eye — researcher James Zou sounding the warning that AI models are getting ‘substantively worse’ over time, thanks to interacting so much with users, i.e. us, the people — their chain of thought reasoning broken by our lies and deceptions, our essential unreliability.

Appupen’s favourite graphic novels 
Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward
Jolies Ténèbres (Beautiful Darkness) by Marie Pommepuy, Sébastien Cosset and Fabien Vehlmann
NonNonBa by Shigeru Mizuki
The Pig Flip by Joshy Benedict

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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