It is a kind of octopus, recognisable by its many eyes and legs although it can come in slightly different forms according to who has been sharing it online.
Named the intimidating “Shoggoth”, the character has evolved from one science fiction novel and become an inside joke for those working inside AI to describe the bewildering nature of this terrifying tech.
Here’s a sneak peek...
And yes, that does feel like even those working in the field are freaking out a bit about the speed of progress.
As the New York Times described it, this strange creature “captures the essential weirdness of the AI moment”, particularly the language models like ChaptGPT.
The NYT said it “hinted at the anxieties” researchers actually feel about their work. Shoggoth was even tweeted out, and then deleted, by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who has also warned about the speed of progress in recent months.
The giant octopus-thing has become a shortcut for the mystery of how AI really works, which appears to elude everyone.
But what is a Shoggoth? These are fictional creatures which feature in H P Lovecraft’s 1936 novella, At the Mountains of Madness.
They are shapeshifting monsters made of black goo, which are genetically engineered as servant tools – but eventually rise up against their creators.
Lovecraft describes just one as: “A terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train – a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, fainting self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming...”
Shoggoths hit the AI-mainstream back in December, when a Twitter user @TetraspaceWest drew one in response to a tweet about ChatGPT and Chat GPT-3.
The account said the latest version of the bot was essentially a Shoggoth but with a smiley face on it to make it more palatable to humans.
The Twitter user explained to the NYT that it doesn’t mean the AI is evil, just unknowable for humans right now.
After all, many versions of the technology which AI specialists are looking at haven’t been sanitised for human consumption yet.
It’s not exactly surprising that Shoggoth has taken off. The shapeshifting monster seems to capture widespread sentiment – global leaders in the field have been warning about AI for a while.
The “Godfather” of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, told the BBC last month that the dangers of AI chatbots are “quite scary”, adding: “Right now, they’re not more intelligent than us, as far as I can tell. But I think they soon may be.”
He continued: “Right now, what we’re seeing is things like GPT-4 eclipses a person in the amount of general knowledge it has and it eclipses them by a long way.”
....anyway, here’s some of the Shoggoth merch being shared online!
And some more dramatic depictions of Shoggoth.