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Simulating History with Multimodal AI: an Update
Generative AI offers a new, more engaging (and, hopefully, more empathetic) way of teaching history. But how to use it?
Writing in Platformer,recently quoted a researcher on the topic of generative AI: “you can fast forward through time” by paying for the newer GPT-4 model, rather than sticking with the free GPT-3.5 version (which seems to be what most people mean when they talk about “ChatGPT”).
In a deeply imperfect but nevertheless fascinating way, you can rewind it backwards, too.
This is a followup to my earlier post on using ChatGPT as a text-based interactive learning tool in my history classes at UCSC. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading that to get a sense of what I mean by “rewinding the past.”
Especially for this post, I also created a detailed example of what this looks like in practice — a “play-through” of a day in the life of a temple scribe in the ancient city-state of Ur in 2254 BCE:
The key part of assignments like this is that students know from the outset that what they are getting is a perspective on the past, filled with distortions. The activity is basically using ChatGPT as an engine for generating interactive historical fiction.
The reason it works as a teaching tool, rather than simply as a form of entertainment, is that large language models are surprisingly good at generating plausible historical settings and characters on the basis of short snippets from primary source texts.
Only now, there’s more than text available to us. What’s changed since I last wrote about this is the rise of multimodal AI: large language models like ChatGPT are now able to both interpret and create images.
As I’ll show below, this new ability is a major leap forward for using GPT-4 to create immersive historical simulations. Here’s the process I used:
Use the current version of my HistoryLens prompt to simulate a setting based on a primary source the human user provides (this can now be a visual source, which has interesting implications).
Feed each “turn” of the simulation to another instance of GPT-4 which has instructions to rework it as a detailed prompt for use with DALL-E 3 (OpenAI’s image generator, which is now part of the paid version of ChatGPT). This semi-automates the process of generating images to match the words.
Use that prompt to generate an image with DALL-E 3. Pick the best out of the four. Use the details in that image to inform your actions in the next turn. This creates a feedback loop whereby historical details from the image generation engine can actually inform the path taken by the textual simulation.
Why does the new visual component matter? By immersing myself in a historical setting through this new form of interactive learning, I find that I’ve actually started to think differently about how history works. The ability to see a historical setting from the eyes of someone inhabiting it helps me remember how urgent the choices faced by people in the past really were. When those choices become history, they seem inevitable. But this reminds us of the truth: it could have gone otherwise.
If this all sounds confusing, read on — I give an example of what this looks like in practice below, by asking ChatGPT to simulate ancient Pompeii on the day of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and to drop me into the perspective of a randomly-generated Roman living in the house that is now known as the Villa of the Mysteries.
Note that I’ve edited the transcript below to make it shorter, but everything besides the parts in bold (which show my input as the “playable character”) were written by GPT-4. You can read the full version here, which also includes the original prompt I used. The image captions show the actual prompt used to create them.
Pompeii’s morning sun casts a warm, amber glow over Villa Lucida. But this tranquility is subtly pierced by an unsettling ambiance: a barely noticeable tremor beneath the feet, distant muffled rumblings, and an uneasy rustling of the lush vine leaves in the courtyard.
The servant, Sabinus, rushes towards you, his eyes wide with a mixture of awe and fear, and pants out, “Mistress Lucretia, there is an unusual cloud in the sky. It’s unlike anything I've seen before!”
You step into the open, gazing toward Vesuvius. The towering plume, dark and menacing, sends an unsettling chill down your spine despite the warmth of the Pompeian sun.
tell me more about my background
Background: Lucretia Cornelia Valeria
Lucretia, born into a prosperous Pompeian family, grew to become a perceptive woman, entwining her life with both the physical and spiritual realms. As she matured, so did her responsibilities, eventually finding herself at the helm of her family’s grand villa after her parents' demise.
Lucretia married young to a merchant from a respectable family, Gaius, who frequently traveled across the Empire, dealing in luxury goods. Their union gave life to a son, Lucius.
go check on Lucius
Lucius is a sprightly 10-year-old, with an insatiable curiosity that often has him exploring every nook and cranny of the villa and its surroundings. His dark, expressive eyes mirror yours, possessing an introspective and analytical depth. His hair, a cascade of soft, dark waves, slightly obscures his inquisitive eyes as he pours over his scrolls or examines his collected artifacts. Though quite mature for his age, Lucius never shies away from the playful gleam of childhood adventures.
As you gently push open the door to his chamber, you find Lucius, crouched on the floor, surrounded by a scattering of scrolls and miniature artifacts, meticulously arranging them - a task that seems to absorb his entirety, rendering him oblivious to the mounting disarray outside.
He hadn’t been entirely ignorant of the peculiar occurrences but seemed to find solace in his artifacts, perhaps a way to impose order amidst uncertainty.
“Is everything alright?” he asks.
"Everything is going to be alright my love. We just need to find your father and figure out what is happening. Come with me now." (then go and ask Sabinus if she has seen my husband Gaius - perhaps he is in the market?)1
Taking a knee, you gently brush Lucius’s hair from his brow, offering a comforting smile, “Everything is going to be alright my love. We just need to find your father and figure out what is happening. Come with me now.”
He nods and scrambles to his feet, clasping your hand tightly. His small fingers, warm and somewhat sticky from an earlier honey treat, find comfort in your grasp. Together, you make your way through the villa, the sound of your sandals softly padding against the mosaic floors, mingling with distant murmurs of concern permeating from the streets outside.
The walls of the villa, typically serene with their rich, warm frescoes, now seem to subtly quiver in the encroaching unease. Despite this, the fragrance of the blossoming flowers in the atrium wafts gently through the corridors, offering a faint, yet poignant remnant of normalcy amidst the silent, unsettling anticipation.
Sabinus, loyal in her duties, is found arranging linens in a storage room. Her greying hair is neatly tucked under a simple cloth. Upon seeing you, she halts, her eyes briefly darting to Lucius before settling on you.
You inquire, “Sabinus, have you seen Gaius? Perhaps he is in the market?”
She ponders momentarily, “Mistress, Gaius mentioned an early meeting with a spice merchant from the East. It's plausible he visited the market thereafter. Would you like me to fetch him?”
"No, let's go together. We shouldn't be separated if there is a disaster happening, and I need to see Gaius and figure out what to do. Come Lucius. We're going to the forum." Head to the forum and on the way ask people if they think the volcano is erupting.
As you, Lucius, and Sabinus step outside the villa, the familiar streets of Pompeii greet you with an altered atmosphere. The golden hues of the morning sun struggle to pierce through the thin veil of ash that now begins to lazily drift down, casting a muted light over everything.
The town is abuzz with a mix of panic and intrigue. People are gathered in clusters, exchanging hurried words, while others scurry about, attempting to continue their day as if nothing were amiss. Street vendors hastily pack their stalls, children dart around in a mix of wonder and fear, and stray animals sense the unrest, scampering around with heightened alertness.
Approaching a middle-aged man adorned in a simple tunic, you inquire, "Do you believe the volcano is erupting?"
He pauses, eyeing the sky thoughtfully before looking back at you, "Vesuvius has been silent for so long. But this... this doesn't seem like a mere forest fire. The mountain has been rumbling these past days, haven't you noticed?"
The forum, the heart of Pompeii's activities, gradually comes into view. At its center stands the grand temple, while the peripheries are populated with merchants, money-changers, and locals. The usual vibrancy of trade and banter is subdued, replaced by an undertone of apprehension.
Near a statue, you spot Gaius, your husband. His tall, imposing figure is recognizable from a distance, with his deep-set eyes and well-groomed beard, reflecting the earnestness and gravitas he carries. He's in a deep conversation with a couple of other townsmen, their expressions grave.
approach him with Lucius and ask him what he thinks we should do
Gaius’s eyes meet yours as you approach, and a myriad of emotions flicker across his face - a subtle blend of relief, concern, and steadfast resolve.
You draw nearer, Lucius clutching the folds of your stola, and inquire softly, “Gaius, what do you think we should do?”
Gaius, after a brief touch of his hand to Lucius's head and a reassuring glance towards you, shares, “Lucretia, I believe this is an eruption of Vesuvius. We’re not safe here. The tremors earlier, and now this sky…” His eyes drift upwards momentarily towards the darkening, ash-strewn sky, “The city is on edge. We must consider leaving Pompeii, at least until we understand the extent of this.”
The sounds of the forum, a murmur of anxious voices, the shuffling of feet, and the distant cries of merchants, encircle your conversation, providing a strangely dissonant backdrop to the crucial decision that lies before you.
I ended the simulation by asking GPT-4 to imagine the fates of the inhabitants of the villa. This is fictional and AI-generated, of course, but I found it surprisingly moving.
You can also ask GPT-4 to imagine a backstory — complete with internal monologue — for every character encountered. For instance, Sabinus appears in the clichéd role of the loyal servant. What happens when I ask GPT-4 to “imagine her as someone with her own inner life” and tell me more about her experience of the eruption of Vesuvius?
This is an excerpt:
Backstory for Sabinus
Sabinus, born in a modest dwelling within a small village outside of Pompeii, was the eldest of four children. Her father worked the fields, while her mother spun wool, both barely managing to sustain their family.
At age 14, she was introduced to the household of Gaius and Lucretia through a distant relative who worked in Pompeii. Although it was agonizing for her to leave her family, she saw it as an opportunity to send back earnings and enhance the life of her siblings. Her parents, with heavy hearts, agreed to this arrangement in hopes of providing a better future for the whole family.
In Pompeii, Sabinus developed a kinship with the family she served. Yet, despite the comfort of her surroundings, her own dreams flickered in the quiet moments – dreams of opening a small inn for weary travelers in her native village, where she could cook hearty meals and share stories by the fireside.
Imagined Diary Entry of Sabinus, August 24, 79 AD
As the pumice stones rain down upon us, my thoughts race to my younger sister, Mariana, her laughter echoing in the simpler times of our childhood. I find solace in memories of my parents, stoic and sturdy like the ancient oaks of our land. They taught me strength, resilience, and love, and it is their spirit that guides my actions today. Gaius and Lucretia are out there, amidst the despair, and my heart aches for them, for all of us.
If by chance these words survive the darkness enveloping us, let them be a testament to our lives, our dreams, our struggles, and the undeniable thread of humanity that binds us even as the world crumbles around.
We are more than the calamity that befalls us.
Pliny the Younger’s account of Pompeii is the classic primary source of the eruption and ensuing disaster. But Pliny’s is the story of a surviver. We’ll never know what the people who perished in Pompeii thought. In the past, high-quality historical fiction (like the works of Hilary Mantel) was the only way to get at the lived experience of those who lived and died without leaving behind textual records of their consciousness.
Now, imperfect as it is, we have another way of doing this imaginative work. I think it’s important.
I couldn’t conclude this post without mentioning what was on my mind the whole time I wrote it: the appalling humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza. You can donate to Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, which is supplying emergency medical aid in Gaza, by clicking here. Another good option is to donate to Anera, a refugee aid non-profit which is supplying food parcels and hygiene kits. (This article from NPR lists these two options and several others; I found it helpful.)
Might historical simulations not only engage students in a historical setting, but encourage empathy with other people and other lives? That’s the big question for me. I’m still not sure. My students are, from what I can tell, extremely engaged by assignments like this. But they tend to see them as a way of testing the limits of a historical setting, often taking fantastical or even cartoonish paths, like rising from the role of a humble Sumerian copper merchant to become King of Ur, or becoming Robin Hood-like outlaws.
How, then, to harness this remarkable power of generative AI to evoke other lives in a way that gets us to actually reflect on our own lives and histories? In other words, how to avoid it simply being a new form of entertainment?
I think that fiction has given us a great template for how this might look in an optimistic scenario: the Holodeck in Star Trek. It’s notable that the Holodeck isn’t just a diversion or entertainment (although the show’s writers clearly used it as such when they got bored of the 24th century and wanted to set an episode in, say, 1920s Chicago). There are several key moments in which the Holodeck does exactly what I’m talking about here: it encourages empathy and mutual understanding.
This might seem like a lot to hang on a barely-functional proof of concept like the historical simulation method I’ve discussed here. But in the longer run, as AI tools become more sophisticated and more embedded in our culture (and our pedagogy), I genuinely think something like this might be possible. A tool not just for immersive learning about history, but for generating real emotional connections with other lives, and other places.
That thought, at least, is one small source of optimism for me in a dark time.
Note that Sabinus was originally male; I accidentally ask here if she has seen my husband. In keeping with its “yes, and…” approach to improvisation, ChatGPT switches the gender to female for the rest of the simulation.