Appupen - “I’m scared of AI just like everybody else” - Hindustan Times
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Appupen - “I’m scared of AI just like everybody else”

Jun 10, 2024 09:21 PM IST

On his new graphic novel Dream Machine on Artificial Intelligence and on teaming up with Perumal Murugan to recreate CS Chellappa’s classic jallikattu novella, Vaadivaasal

Dream Machine explores the rise of AI and ChatGPT. How do you feel about AI and AI-enabled tools to create art forms?

Graphic novelist Appupen (Courtesy the subject)
Graphic novelist Appupen (Courtesy the subject)

I pitched this project after I met this AI scientist in France – he was open about the heavy toll of this technology on the planet. He teaches AI and is the CEO of a company in France. He sent me his teaching modules from where I had to make it into a story. I’m scared of AI just like everybody else and the idea of doing this book was to open it up, to analyse it and to give everybody a balanced image because we found that different people think different things about AI. It was important for us to give people a realistic idea before they made an informed decision about what AI could cost and in what way even if it made life better.

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Do you think AI is powerful enough to put artists and creators out of jobs?

AI, in general, is not the bad guy; it’s the people behind it that are problematic, for example, when businesses operate on AI without regulations. In some parts of the US, they’ve ruled that AI art cannot be copyrighted, which means you cannot sell it. AI may not directly affect my comics but it will attack me where my money comes from – produce/recreate things faster, on a larger scale whilst cutting costs. AI might churn out a hundred branding ideas for you in a very short time and that’s where it’s going to take away the work of artists. And not only artists, AI has now become the CEO of a company in China although I’m not sure if it’s true or just a PR stunt. There are already many AI-generated text-only books. Soon there’ll be AI generated comic books – these could be a charm for a while but I don’t think it’ll hold too much interest.

160pp, ₹599; Westland
160pp, ₹599; Westland

It’s very difficult to draw the line between what’s copied or not – text or art. The push of the business world is what is making it dangerous for creators. This monopoly of AI is problematic because all of it is owned by profit-making companies who don’t really care about the social aspect of things. It’s also very creatively marketed hence distracting from the real use of it which is that AI is studying you, it’s making your replica. It’s understanding you so well that all your online behaviour – what you buy, where you go, your bank transactions – everything put together at a much faster pace to predict you much better than anything else. That can lead to the running of whole companies and even countries, which will result in creating a bigger divide. AI is tuned to make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful, and the poor poorer. It is custom made for a dictatorial and totalitarian set up because with AI, only a few guys can run a whole country by pressing the right buttons. If it’s not handled correctly, it could lead to a lot of unemployment, especially in a population like ours.

How have you incorporated AI in your book?

One thing people should understand is that AI doesn’t create; it reproduces. The more it is trained on, the better it reproduces. Recently, there was a leak in Midjourney and it revealed a list of artists the AI-enabled software was trained on. The list also included a list of artists they’re going to train it with which included MF Hussain and SH Raza as well.

After we finished the story of Dream Machine, we fed it to AI (Dall-E and ChatGPT) with separate prompts, along with 800 of my drawings, and asked it to generate five probable futuristic scenarios at the end of the book inspired from the story’s premise. One is where ethical and responsible AI is working and there’s regulation to make sure that whoever is losing a job has enough time to find another one, so the world is a better place. In the other reality, AI is not working because the corporations are in charge. And the last one is a zombie apocalypse with AI. The idea is also to do an exposé of hand-done drawings and AI-generated art.

How did working with Perumal Murugan come about?

I’ve been a fan and follower of Perumal Murugan for a long while and I bumped into him at the Paris Book Fair, and since I was in France for a residency before, I volunteered to take him around. We bonded there and even though he was speaking in Tamil and I was speaking in Malayalam, we were getting each other and the vibe was really nice.

The next morning, his Tamil-language publisher Kanan Sundaram (founder of Kalachuvadu Pathippagam) came and asked me if I’d like to work with him on two books, and that’s how it all started.

Why did you choose to turn CS Chellapa’s classic Jallikattu novella — Vaadivaasal — into a graphic novel?

Vaadivaasal was Kannan’s idea as he owned the rights to the book. We’ve been ironing out the script, cutting down a lot of text from the original, even though it’s a small book, to make it graphic. I had to do very little in terms of making Perumal Murugan familiar with writing for a graphic novel. It’s going to be a multilingual book and we’ll begin with publishing the book in Tamil and English. We’re also looking at several languages and therefore, we’re creating the artwork in a way similar to what we did for Dream Machine, the AI book where the layers and text are kept separate.

LISTEN: Big tech, profit, loss, and AI - Appupen on the Books & Authors podcast

Participants try to tame a bull during a jallikattu event at Alanganallur village near Madurai, Tamil Nadu on Thursday, January 17, 2019. (Hemanshi Kamani/HT)
Participants try to tame a bull during a jallikattu event at Alanganallur village near Madurai, Tamil Nadu on Thursday, January 17, 2019. (Hemanshi Kamani/HT)

How is the art going to be different from your other books?

The whole story unfolds inside the arena and you barely get a glimpse of the outside. It’s really just a contest between man and bull so the entire book is black and white with harsh light and shadows. In each book, I try and do something different, and I also change my style to suit the story. For example, RashtraMan! has a totally different style. The colours in it are inspired by the comics that we read which had bleeding, bright colours, reminiscent of the old offset printing.

Your works have always been politically charged. Tell us about the politics of celebratory bull taming in Vaadivaasal.

There’s a very polished way of approaching politics in this book. It sells a lot in many languages already and we want to stay true to the novel and remain faithful to Chellappa. Chellappa himself was quite a rebel. All the photographs of jallikattu from that time (1945), we know of them only through him. He was carrying these machines and taking shots of the sport because there is very little documentation. I went to see jallikattu last year in Palamedu and Alanganallur – two towns close to Madurai – to get an idea of what they do now with it. Jallikattu has changed over the years, some rules have been introduced so that it’s a little safer. Earlier, there was no barricading and the bull could run in through the crowd. Contestants are also registered. The sport is from an older idea of taming the bull. There is no blood on the bull, or harming it. The bull is actually seen as a deity. All of this is connected to the temple. The bull is revered so nobody messes with it. It’s also a way for men to show their strength and power. The zamindar who owns the bull has raised it like his son and the man who tames the bull, could marry the zamindar’s daughter. So jallikattu was also an equaliser in many ways. Tamil Nadu is flat and spread out and has a lot of cow herding culture. Cattle is part of people’s wealth and that’s how the sport has evolved. There is no denying that it is violent. We witnessed one guy going up in the air and eventually being killed. You tame the bull by hugging its hump and bring it down by holding the horns – after the sport the bull is treated like a celebrity.

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

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