Tarot and A.I.: A new future or a non-starter?

tarot and tech Mar 06, 2023

All of a sudden it seems like everyone is talking about artificial intelligence, or A.I. Even in the tarot community.

Open A.I. apps like ChatGPT and PFP.AI are becoming increasingly popular with people who want to update their profile pictures with artistic renderings, or who want to outline quick blog posts or other marketing content.

A.I. didn’t just come out of nowhere, though. The term “artificial intelligence” was coined in 1955, three years after computer scientist Arthur Samuel developed the world’s first self-learning computer program, the Samuel Checkers-playing program.

In our modern day, social media companies like Facebook and Google use machine-learning to deliver ads to users. Facebook also uses it to monitor content and comments, although human reviewers still often make final judgment calls on flagged content.

Voice-activated tools like Apple’s Siri, Echo and Amazon’s Alexa and Echo also use artificial intelligence. Siri was released in 2011, and Alexa in 2014. It’s estimated that Siri alone has over 500 million users worldwide, a sign that artificial intelligence has been integrated into many of our personal lives for over a decade now at the very least.

But there have always been rumblings and warnings in the background about A.I. In 1965, Irving John Good, who consulted Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (which featured HAL 9000., artificial intelligence played as sentient), warned of society losing control to intelligent machines.

That same year, Hubert Dreyfus criticized the optimism around A.I., questioning the beliefs that computers would outpace human capability. He went on to publish What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence in 1972.

As we know, history repeats itself. Debates around the merit, potential, and pitfalls of artificial intelligence have continued in decades since, and continue today.

One of the most recent debates we’re seeing has to do with A.I.-generated artwork on tarot decks. Tarot creators and experts like Ethony and Benebell Wen have both shared their takes, and discussions about the usability and proliferation of A.I. tarot packs are popping up on online forums.

Some of the issues being raised centre around copyright law, which I won’t weigh in on here as I’m not well-versed enough in the legal ins and outs of it all – though it does seem that this will be a new frontier for copyright law.

A.I. is also being used to create tarot spreads, access tarot card meanings, and even give tarot readings.

Of course, it’s natural that tarot readers and deck creators are wondering: Where is this all leading to? Will people turn to ChatGPT for tarot readings instead of their local card slinger? Will A.I. take the place of your favourite tarot books?

In the back of many people’s minds sits the warnings we’ve heard at various points throughout history: That A.I. will someday, somehow, outsmart humans to the point where our very existence will become irrelevant.

How bleak! How dire! How fatalistic! It’s such an all-or-nothing scenario.

We have to remember that life rarely gets to such extremes. At the height of pandemic lockdowns, many of us embraced online connection through Zoom and social media. But as soon as restrictions eased up, people were just as quick to get back to seeing each other in-person.  

We will always gravitate towards human experiences because that is what we are, even if our modern lives are a hybrid of digital and three-dimensional realities.

Still, A.I. is, no doubt, part of our future because it is already part of our past and present. If you use social media, write or read email newsletters, have a smartphone, or shop with Amazon, you’ve already interacted with artificial intelligence.

But when we think about A.I.’s influence on tarot – be it the tenderness of a reading or the creation of a deck – we start to question how machine-learning can infiltrate something that feels so spiritual and soulful.

Some people have criticized A.I. tarot decks as feeling empty or hollow. I haven’t used any of these decks myself, but I am mindful that artists use all kinds of tools when illustrating a deck. We might envision an artist sitting a desk, illustrating each card by hand, but realistically, many tarot decks are created by graphic designers using software programs.

Yes, there might still be more human direction in those cases, whereas A.I. is responding to a prompt to generate art. But at the end of the day, there is a lot of technology that goes into modern-day design, publishing and printing. If we are going to criticize A.I. decks for use of technology, where is the line drawn?

Is there a concern that A.I. could overtake illustration? I do think there’s legitimate concern for graphic artists and designers here. But it’s also early in the game to know how that will shake out, and it’s not something I’m intending to conclude on in this piece of writing. Though I will say it’s not the first time in history artists have been upended by technology. Advances in photography and graphic design have long ago changed the landscape for illustrators and fine artists.

What I’m more interested in is the speculation that A.I. will overtake human capacity for creativity and innovation. Some talk about A.I. as though it is or will become sentient, aware of itself and capable of outsmarting us in all ways.

Sure, A.I. will likely improve over time, as it already has. Hopefully, our society finds ways to use it wisely.

But will A.I. won’t be able to replicate human experiences because it’s not having human experiences. So when I hear people worry that A.I. tarot readings, decks, or teachings will replace the real-life tarot industry, I have to admit I don’t share those fears.

When it comes to using A.I. for tarot readings, information, or spreads, the discussion feels very similar to concerns raised around tarot apps like Labyrinthos. A decade ago, people were debating the merit of tarot apps, worried that they, too, could upend the work of a tarot reader.

Apps can be useful tools if you’re looking for quick information. But they’re limited to what they can do, which is why they haven’t replaced real-life tarot readings, classes, or books.

A.I. tarot readings feel the same to me, but just presented in a slightly different package. Platforms like ChatGPT are just repeating data they’ve already been fed about tarot. There is no art to its interpretation, because A.I. isn’t using human instinct, discernment, or intuition the way a flesh and blood tarot reader will.

Similarly, you might use A.I. like ChatGPT to quickly look up a tarot card you’re stuck on if you’re reading for yourself, but you could get to the same answer with a Google search or glance at the little white book. Even then, it’s not necessarily “teaching” you how to improve as a tarot reader: it’s just giving you a piece of information you could find elsewhere. It’s not a mentor, elder, or guide, and it’s not going to teach you how to implement what you’re learning.

Can we still divine with A.I.? People divine with all kinds of things: Magic 8 balls, tea leaves, sticks on the ground. I don’t know that I would rule it out altogether, as I believe oracular experiences can be found in many places. But if I was going to choose, I’d rather see my favourite tarot reader or pull my own cards.

Will it fully replace tarot readers? I highly doubt it. Artificial intelligence can’t replicate human experience because it’s not living through the same things we are. It doesn’t have a past or a history and it doesn’t have a point of view – at least not one that hasn’t been pre-programmed.

I could use ChatGPT to outline a tarot blog or write you a newsletter about tarot, but it won’t have my perspective in it, or my opinion. It wouldn’t be able to offer a point of view or come to an educated guess based on my experiences. It won’t know why I think the way I think about tarot, and it won’t see the nuances or divides that I do.

Just like it can’t see those things for other tarot readers, either. It could very well see us all exactly the same, which we are not.

And that’s also why I think the fear about A.I. is sometimes overblown – especially when it comes to tarot, which relies so much on the art of interpretation. Every reading is unique because every querent is a little bit different: Some need tough love and some seek gentle compassion. Some want fortunes and others need advice.

Similarly, tarot decks are more than just random images: They hold history and thoughtful correspondences. A good deck is designed with an understanding that the end-use has to be satisfying for a skilled reader to work with.

And readers all offer their own special flavours, language, and insights to their cards and their teachings that can’t be pre-programmed or predicted by machine-learning. We seek each other out as humans because we can’t be understood any other way.

Everything in between is just a substitute, a small sip of water on your way to the river.

Until next time,



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