I enjoy poetry, both reading and writing it, though I find a fair amount of it insufferable, including a fair amount of my own.
A lot of poetic ideas begin as dreck (as they must, or they won’t begin at all). But — this is the secret — if you somehow strike the balance of stifling your inner editor while still powering through revisions, eventually you might end up with something that truly sparkles and surprises: the musicality of language and the expression of a feeling or experience that no straightforward telling can approximate.
Or sometimes it happens on the first try.
In any case, I was interested to read this week in Vox about public access (talktotransformer.com) to a new version of a synthetic-language system developed by OpenAI, a founder of which was Elon Musk. The artificial intelligence is designed to construct coherent paragraphs by adapting “to the style and content of the conditioning text.”
I was game for an experiment. But I wasn’t about to volunteer writing I like, so I dug up some literally navel-gazing dreck I once thought up in the shower, then entered it into the engine.
Here’s me, kicking things off:
Water from the shower head,
willed from the tap,
spatters off my body as I scrub.
the shower door,
down the simplest
And here’s AI, completing the thought:
We’ve found a good place,
to live without any rules,
I say, “You’ve got to pay with your life.”
You say, “If you’re a free mind, it means you’re not worth anything.”
I’ll never let it go this way,
I know that there must be something that can kill me.
The thought of death
will send me into another wave.
Huh. And all I wanted was to smell better.
Of course, bad poetry isn’t the real worry here. That passage is not so far from my rhythms — or from something that might elicit a sigh of chin-stroking appreciation from an audience at a poetry reading. (This is because audiences at poetry readings are generous and open-minded, and because jeering and whooping are awkward in a quiet room of a few dozen people seated within 15 feet of the poet, and because people have to exhale at some point.)
If artificial intelligence can accomplish that, just think of what it could achieve with other types of information it can invent and disseminate. Like “news.”
That potential for abuse is a concern for OpenAI, which states that its mission “is to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” To wit, the company has been stingy with public versions of its system — they’re less powerful than they could be. (Musk, who has since left OpenAI’s board, once said that AI is humanity’s “biggest existential threat.”)
OpenAI’s charter states that the organization will “avoid enabling uses of AI or AGI that harm humanity or unduly concentrate power.” Then again, OpenAI was launched in 2015 as a nonprofit. It’s since become a “capped profit” limited partnership. It’s been said that when people tell you who they are, believe them. Anthropomorphized, technology drives forward. As creativity does. And money and power.
Thus it was that San Francisco, with a vote this week, set itself up to become the first big city to ban the use of facial-recognition technology by police and other departments. It’s pre-emptive, since the city’s current use of such tools is limited. But no matter where you are, you’ve probably noticed all those security cameras already in place, eager for greater productivity. (I count 24 of them — the ones I can see — between my desk at the Star Tribune and my parking garage a block away.)
Meanwhile in China, prominent bioethicists have called for a reboot of their country’s handling of biomedical research after a scientist announced last year that he had altered the genes of twin baby girls as embryos. He also had to flout international standards to do it. Didn’t stop him.
And people everywhere are noting, perhaps with relief, that the promised shift toward autonomous driving hasn’t advanced as swiftly as some expected. While they simultaneously look forward to the day.
One can see benefits in all these technologies if they’re properly guided. The forward march will take up a significant chunk of legal and ethical bandwidth. Are we equipped?
It all makes poetry seem like a good place to hide. (I did consider giving the synthetic-text engine a crack at making up a newspaper article instead, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was sore afraid.)
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com