I’ll admit I don’t understand Victorian holiday cards – why would Christmas be best illustrated by a pipe-smoking kangaroo in a dressing gown painting a portrait of a cigar-smoking stork? Or what would lead someone to give their loved ones a card with a crowd of sparrows marching with flaming torches and the message “May All Jollity ‘lighten’ Your Christmas Hours”?
But it seemed to me that they’d make a good starting point for generating some interesting holiday cards. Modern holiday cards have a pretty limited set of messages and iconography, so it would be pretty easy for a text-generating neural net to memorize the list, or for an internet-trained AI to pick out closely-related phrases to add to whatever list I gave it. But to me, at least, Victorian holiday cards are hard to predict. So, I decided to see what would happen if I gave GPT-3 a list of messages from real Victorian cards, along with descriptions of their illustrations, and asked it to predict the next entries on the list.
Here are some of the cards GPT-3 predicted. I did my best to add illustrations according to its descriptions.
GPT-3 also generated some cards that I didn’t quite feel up to the task of illustrating.
May the seasons happiness envelope you
An ostrich riding both a carousel and a balloon
A Merry Christmas And Joye To Thee Throughe-Out The Next Yeare
In dark hues, a boar does cartwheels under a crescent moon, a bat flies with a bird, a snail sings her accordion, and a leering masked figure lurks.
A Merry XMAS
A cowboy on an ostrich horse wrestles a bear on all fours
A Happy New Year
A black cat in a red dress sends valentine cards with a message asking, “What have you done?” A burning fireplace with two measuring sticks for fire tools.
Don’t Forget That Jolly Has The Same Ending As Jolly, 1891
A cat with furled umbrella and triangular ruffled hat bows to a butterfly
I Wish You The Greatest Amount of Jollity, 1889
A jester puppet with magic hat holds a leaping, toothed bird which brandishes a cane as it leaps.
May the mild Cares of your hearth and home Prove a source of pure and storyst delight, 1889
An orange cat with a winged head, wearing spectacles And hat, and carring an unidentified object at his side.
Wishing You a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, 1889
A seal in a top-hat riding a shark; black ink stains mar the seal’s fur and beard, and the beard of the hiding man in the background.
Did GPT-3 do a good job? I don’t even know. Mostly that’s because I don’t know that much about Victorian cards. I thought the cowboy was way out of place until I remembered that Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has a Texan cowboy in it, so the rest of these could be right too.
That’s one thing about AI-generated text nowadays – it copies the style but not the substance. Whatever it generates might look correct to most people, but not to an expert. Approximately correct can backfire in some applications.
The above cards were from the largest GPT-3 model, DaVinci. I also had the smallest model, Ada, generate some cards. They tended to be harder to illustrate, although they had the macabre notes in some of these cards down exactly.
A Christmas Tree
A frantic octopus watches Santa descend from the sky out of a dark, drapery-clad window.
A Christmas Party
A man wearing a Christmas tuxedo and a coal tar bonfire that no one expected is Decorating Your Christmas Tree
They don’t do Christmas like they used to.