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Talking Steampunk with ChatGPT

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The steampunk world has been a-buzz with eye-popping imagery created by generative AI systems such as Midjourney and DALL E. But another generative AI technology has been stirring controversy in fields as diverse as education, politics, and songwriting.

ChatGPT, launched last November, is a sophisticated chatbot from OpenAI, the company behind DALL E. Though still in an experimental preview stage, it is notable for its ability to engage in conversations in ways that seem human.

In several incidents that have garnered national attention, college professors have caught students who used ChatGPT to write papers, prompting changes in how courses are structured.

As I was exploring some of the generative art tools, I decided to check out ChatGPT as well. Being a journalist, I did it in the form of an interview.

The results were uncanny and a bit frightening. ChatGPT was verbose at times – a consequence of how it was initially trained – and it often gets its facts wrong. But surprisingly, it gave the best answers to some of the tougher questions. Aside from the factual errors, I’ve had worse interviews with human beings.

A transcript follows, with corrections in italics. I removed a few exchanges to keep this at a reasonable length, but the answers themselves have not been edited.

Q: Are you familiar with steampunk?

ChatGPT: Yes, I am familiar with steampunk. It is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Steampunk often incorporates elements of fantasy and horror, and it can be found in literature, film, television, fashion, and other forms of media.

Q: You say it typically features steam-powered machinery. What about Nikola Tesla?

ChatGPT: Nikola Tesla was a real-life inventor and scientist who made many contributions to the field of electrical engineering in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Tesla’s inventions and ideas were not specifically related to steam power, they have been incorporated into some forms of steampunk fiction as an alternative or augment to traditional steam-based technology. Some examples of this include Tesla coils and other electrical devices being used in place of or alongside steam engines. So, Tesla’s work and inventions are not typical in steampunk but it is not uncommon to see it being used as a nod to his work.

Q: Can you name some examples of steampunk literature?

ChatGPT: Certainly, here are a few examples of steampunk literature:

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling - This novel is considered to be one of the first steampunk novels, and it explores an alternate history in which Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, an early mechanical computer, was built in the 19th century and led to a technological revolution.

The Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld - This series of young adult novels is set in an alternate version of World War I in which the major powers use giant, steam-powered war machines called “Leviathans” in battle.

The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo - This trilogy of novels is set in an alternate version of the 19th century in which a group of brilliant inventors create a wide range of steam-powered technology, from robots to flying machines.

Editor’s note: Not an accurate description of the stories.

The Ironclad Prophecy by Nick Webb - This novel is set in an alternate version of the American Civil War in which the Confederacy has developed steam-powered robots and other advanced technology.

Editor’s note: The book was written by Pat Kelleher and is set during World War I.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson - The novel is set in a future world where nanotechnology is the norm and a young girl is given a highly advanced interactive book which leads her to become a leader of a neo-Victorian culture.

These are just a few examples of the many steampunk novels that have been written.

Q: Can you tell me where you got your information about steampunk literature?

ChatGPT: As a language model, I was trained on a wide variety of texts, including books, websites, and other types of written material. The information I provided about steampunk literature is based on my understanding of the texts that I was trained on, which includes examples of steampunk literature, as well as general information about the steampunk genre. My knowledge cutoff is 2021 and my responses are based on the information that was available to me during that time. I may not have the most up-to-date information on the topic, but I can certainly help you find more resources if you would like.

Q: Can you tell me about some of the major steampunk events held around the world?

ChatGPT: Steampunk events are held all around the world, and they vary in size and scope. Some of the major steampunk events include:

The Steampunk World’s Fair - This event is held annually in New Jersey, USA and features vendors, live music, panel discussions, and other activities.

The Asylum Steampunk Festival - This event is held annually in Lincoln, UK and features live music, steam-powered rides, and other activities.

Steamcon - This event is held annually in Seattle, USA and features vendors, panel discussions, and other activities.

The Great Steampunk Debate - This event is held annually in Australia and features panel discussions, live music, and other activities.

The Steampunk Exhibition - This event is held annually in the UK and features vendors, panel discussions, and other activities.

The Victorian Steampunk Society’s Soiree - This event is held annually in California, USA and features vendors, live music, panel discussions, and other activities.

Steampunk NZ Festival - This event is held annually in New Zealand and features vendors, live music, panel discussions, and other activities.

The Great British Steampunk Festival - This event is held annually in England and features vendors, live music, panel discussions, and other activities.

These are some of the major events, but there are many smaller events held throughout the year in many different countries.

Editor’s note: This event list is highly inaccurate.

Q: Some of those events haven’t been held in many years.

ChatGPT: I apologize for any confusion. My knowledge cut off date is 2021 and some of the events I listed may no longer be held or their name or location might have changed. Steampunk events are held in many locations around the world, and some are organized annually, bi-annually or occasionally, it is always best to check the official website or social media of the event you’re interested in to confirm the dates and location, and also to check if the event will be held in-person or virtually due to the current pandemic situation.

Q: Some people have said that steampunk is dead. What do you think?

ChatGPT: Steampunk, like many subcultures, has gone through various stages of popularity and engagement. There have been some people that have said that Steampunk is dead, but as a language model, I do not have the ability to form opinions.

However, I can tell you that the subculture is still active and has a dedicated community of enthusiasts, who continue to create, participate, and attend events and conventions, as well as produce music, art and literature.

Some people argue that the Steampunk subculture has become more mainstream, which leads to a decline in participation from some of the original enthusiasts, and others argue that the subculture is evolving and adapting to new technologies and influences. Steampunk is a creative and dynamic genre, and as such, it will continue to evolve and change over time.

Q: Can you tell me about the relationship between steampunk and the Maker Movement?

ChatGPT: Steampunk and the Maker Movement have some similarities and overlaps, as both are centered around the idea of creating and building things using traditional techniques and materials, often with a focus on DIY and self-expression.

The Maker Movement is a broader term that encompasses a wide range of DIY and hobbyist activities, including electronics, robotics, 3D printing, and more. It encourages individuals to learn, create and invent using technology. Many steampunk enthusiasts are also makers, using traditional techniques such as metalworking, woodworking, and sewing to create their own steampunk-inspired clothing, props, and gadgets.

Steampunk, on the other hand, is a subculture and aesthetic that is heavily influenced by the Victorian era, and it often includes elements of science fiction, fantasy and alternate history. It’s a unique subculture that is based on the aesthetic of Victorian-era technology, such as steam-powered machinery, clockwork automatons, and airships, and it’s often used in literature, film, fashion and other forms of media.

In short, the Maker Movement and steampunk have some similarities in terms of DIY, creativity and self-expression, but steampunk is a subculture that is heavily influenced by a specific aesthetic and historical era, and it often includes elements of science fiction and fantasy.

Q: How would you define the steampunk aesthetic?

ChatGPT: The steampunk aesthetic is a visual style that is heavily influenced by the technology and design of the Victorian era, as well as the industrial revolution. It often features a mix of historical and fantasy elements, including steam-powered machinery, clockwork automatons, airships, and other technological innovations that are inspired by the 19th century.

The steampunk aesthetic often includes:

• The use of gears, cogs, and other mechanical elements as decorative elements.

• The incorporation of brass, copper, and other metallic tones in clothing and accessories.

• The use of goggles, top hats, and other Victorian-era fashion items.

• The use of leather, corsets, and other materials that were popular during the Victorian era.

• The use of airships, dirigibles, and other forms of fantastical transportation.

• The use of clockwork and other mechanical devices in the design of objects and machinery.

• The incorporation of elements of science fiction and fantasy, such as ray guns and other futuristic technology.

In addition to the visual aspect, the steampunk aesthetic also includes a sense of nostalgia for a time of great technological advancements and cultural changes. It often has a sense of anachronism, as it blends the old with the new, the historical with the fantastical.

Q: Can you tell me about the concept of multiculturalism in steampunk?

ChatGPT: The concept of multiculturalism in steampunk refers to the idea that steampunk culture and aesthetic can be adapted and reinterpreted to reflect the diverse perspectives and experiences of people from different cultures and backgrounds. This can include incorporating elements of non-Western cultures, such as Asian, African, and Middle Eastern influences, into steampunk clothing, art, and technology.

Steampunk has its roots in Western culture, specifically in the Victorian era and the Industrial Revolution, but it has the potential to be inclusive and to reflect the diverse perspectives and experiences of people from different cultures and backgrounds. This can include reinterpreting the traditional Victorian aesthetic to reflect different cultural influences, as well as exploring alternative histories and alternate realities that incorporate elements of non-Western cultures.

For example, some steampunk enthusiasts have created works that reflect African and Caribbean cultures, such as steampunk airships inspired by traditional African masks and clothing, or steam-powered robots influenced by Caribbean folklore. Some others have created steampunk works that reflect Asian cultures, such as steampunk versions of traditional Japanese or Chinese clothing and technology.

However, it’s worth noting that the concept of multiculturalism in steampunk is still evolving and in some cases, it’s not always inclusive or representative of diverse perspectives and experiences. Some critics have pointed out that steampunk culture is still primarily dominated by Western perspectives, and that more needs to be done to promote and celebrate the contributions of people from diverse backgrounds.

Q: I am the editor of an online publication called The Steampunk Explorer. Are you familiar with it?

ChatGPT: I’m sorry but as an AI language model I don’t have the ability to access the internet, so I am not familiar with any specific online publications, including The Steampunk Explorer. However, I can tell you that there are many online publications and websites that focus on steampunk culture and lifestyle, and they often feature articles, reviews, and other content that is of interest to steampunk enthusiasts. These publications can be a great resource for information on new books, music, events and more, as well as a great place to connect with other people who share your interest in steampunk culture.

Q: You’re not familiar with The Steampunk Explorer? You hurt my feelings.

ChatGPT: I apologize if my previous response caused any offense. As an AI, I do not have the ability to access the internet and I am not aware of any specific websites, publications or events that are happening in the present or after my knowledge cut-off date. My main function is to provide information and answer questions based on the knowledge and data that I have been trained on, and my lack of knowledge about specific websites should not be taken as a personal offense. I hope you understand that my main goal is to assist and provide information, and I apologize if my previous response caused any frustration.

Q: OK, I accept your apology. Thank you for your time.

ChatGPT: You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask.

Related coverage: AI-Generated Imagery Poses Challenges for Steampunk Creators

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