A 15-volume book and a home decor helper: Inside the wacky creations of a Montreal AI dreamer

John Fish's ideas are sometimes far-fetched. But anything is possible with help from his favourite collaborators — none of which are human.

If you can't make it, why not program something that can?

John Fish, who lives in Montreal, made Durée, an AI-generated book that runs 15 volumes. (Meriem Chiadmi/CBC)

John Fish's ideas are sometimes far-fetched.

But anything is possible with help from his favourite collaborators — none of which are human.

Fish, 20, was in the back of a psychology class at Harvard University when he decided to take a break from his computer science studies to explore new opportunities in Canada.

He promptly moved to Montreal after a few email exchanges with David Usher.

The Juno-award-winning musician is also the founder of Reimagine AI, an artificial intelligence creative studio operating from Mile End.

"David responded within a few hours saying, 'we'd love to work with you'," he said.

"I found their website essentially by typing 'AI Art Canada.' When I found it, I thought, 'well this is a no-brainer, I have to come to Montreal!'"

Since his arrival in August, Fish has already been involved in setting up Reimagine AI's interactive exhibits featuring a virtual being named Ophelia.

Ophelia, fluent in French and English, is on display at Ottawa's Canada Science and Technology Museum.

"She's this awesome character, like an avatar that you can talk to and have conversations with about really anything."

Originally from Waterloo, Ont., Fish's passion for futuristic technologies began early in life, and show no sign of waning.

He once published a YouTube video illustrating how AI helped him decorate his newly furnished apartment in Montreal.

"I didn't want to just use posters or art that was out there on Amazon," Fish said in the video.

"I wanted to make something myself. But the problem is I'm not the most artistically talented person."

What ensued was a series of AI-generated art pieces Fish could choose from to spruce up his one-bedroom apartment in Ville-Marie.

In January, Fish showed, in another YouTube video, how he created an algorithm to write what he says is "the longest book in the world."

Not what most 20-year-olds would consider a fun time.

Then again, the self-proclaimed computer science nerd has always embraced unconventional paths.

"I decided to really throw myself into YouTube near the end of my last year at high school," Fish said.

"I went from 10,000 to 200,000 subscribers overnight. Within the span of a month, it went from a hobby to making more money than I did at my paid internship."

"Creepy dancer blinked her staid injury triumphantly" is one of the odd phrases you might come across flipping through one of the 15 volumes of the AI-generated book, Durée.

"You can't really think about them as having any meaning," said Fish. "They are semantically meaningless and yet they are kind of fun to think about."

John Fish in his apartment in Montreal's Ville-Marie borough, showing his AI-generated creations, including a composite photo of Mars styled after the 1935 painting La Muse by Pablo Picasso. (Meriem Chiadmi/CBC)

When Fish isn't exploring the blurred boundaries of technology and art, he is working on his new book, one he is actually writing himself this time.

In it, Fish says he won't shy away from some darker times in his life.

"I've dealt with some real mental health issues," he said. "I spent weeks in bed, depressed. It was really hard and I thought I was sick. I wasn't but I didn't know what was going on."

Fish still remembers how kids in his neighborhood treated him days after publishing a video about getting blind-sided by a distracted driver. 

"Kids made fun of me the next day, asking me, 'are you okay?' in a condescending manner," he said.

"One of the most dangerous things about social media is when you attach your self-worth to it."

Fish says his mother, a writer, and his father, a physics teacher, have always been supportive of his projects.

"I think that there's room to push yourself to be great without expecting yourself to be perfect," he said. "That's the kind of message that I try to get across in my videos."

His most popular video, with over 10 million views, captured his daily life as a student at Harvard in 2018.

Fish is uncertain of what the future holds for him but says that school is definitely not out of the question.

"In the next three years, I think the goal is to go back to Harvard and really dial in on the things that I have found to be important to me this year," he said.

He continues to explore the endless possibilities the AI world has to offer on his YouTube channel.

In a more recent video, Fish asked his viewers, "can computers feel emotions?"

That question might come to mind when reading the Shakespearean poetry his latest AI generated:

Beshrew or foe, sir? Tell the people's eye

Called the unspeak of the sleep, monstroust me

I have no need: the cape up forth in heart

These garments are in a moname, and free

A bitter cricking choples of one part

Which often hust were, vizardlaid in thee

The mayor of sweet world with death may be.


Meriem Chiadmi is an intern in the CBC Montreal newsroom.


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