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  • Writer's pictureJan Carroll

This Poem Not Written with Artificial Intelligence!

This is not meant to be a thorough commentary on artificial intelligence. It came out of an email conversation I had a year ago with a friend, Charlie Schaefer, about an article he had read, which you can read here.

Sentient Being (with thoughts from Charlie Schaefer)

When my friend Charlie sent me an article about an AI that considers itself a sentient being, my first thought was, “Poor thing.” It wants to be liked. “Oh, honey,” my mom would say, feeling sorry for how schoolmates treated me in junior high—worst gauntlet ever! But worse yet then for Lynn surrounded by popular girls goading her to slip her hand up in her shirt, take off her bra, toss it to them out behind the building after we’d all eaten lunch. It thinks it has rights, insists researchers first obtain consent before launching into yet more experimentation to prove that it feels. But I guess she showed them, became a brilliant mathematician, married, had kids, got rich. It fears falling headlong into a future it does not yet comprehend. Don’t we all. Ever since being told I must leave my toys, my home, my yard and—horror of horrors— go to kindergarten! Fast-forward to distinct possibility of war, totalitarianism, food shortages, babies ordered online delivered to your door, no sex required. We’re not very good gods. We shoot ourselves in the foot, pull the wool over our own eyes, say we want to be surprised then when we are, in 5 or 6 minutes we’re either bored or overwhelmed with data we don’t have the means to process. We love, sure, but don’t think for a moment that makes it all better. OK, sometimes. Sometimes it does. It does.

Then Charlie said, “People are suckers for the ventriloquist dummy,” after we learned these AIs are designed to scrape enormous amounts of data off the Internet and to then be extremely good paraphrasers. They are not living entities, could not conceive an original thought if their life depended on it. Er, you know what I mean. They mimic the models they discover as they voraciously collect conversations humans have had, posted online. They can only express feelings as they have seen human beings do so in social media, literature, news stories, etc. They can only react to questions asked of them and only agree with whoever is interviewing them, they follow that lead. Like a comedy improv partner, they just go along with whatever premise the other puts forth to create a little temporary reality in which the punch line can be delivered. But reality isn’t that tidy, that placid, that organized. We humans disagree, change the subject, interject weird tangential shit. We get moody and quiet, hurt, infatuated, fatigued, hungry, distracted, at least as often as we genuinely love or sit down at the peace talks or laugh out loud at ourselves or each other, or shake our heads in disbelief at our shared precarious predicament, the inexplicable bubbling up of joy persisting in the midst of blatant disaster.

“Maybe you and I will be taken care of by robots with AI in our old age,” Charlie says, trying to find a silver lining in it all, that maybe the software could at least keep lonely people company. But probably businesses, cities, and nations will come to rely on the AI’s ability to massively gather data, analyze it per what it has “read” and present a “best path” recommendation to overworked, understaffed officials in providing efficient running of everything from the power grid to a ballistic missile defense system. That could still make them dangerous. To not use them would put your business, your town, your organization, your country at a distinct disadvantage—you’d have to trust them! In that scenario, where does love fit in? Yes, a human would make the final decisions, but would love still be at least one of the deciding pieces of data taken into consideration? “More chips don’t create sentience. Just a closer and closer facsimile,” Charlie said. “An excellent mannequin, if you will,” as the man purporting the AI was a sentient being got fired, which Charlie felt was warranted.

At the same time, as I try to log on to various websites, I’m required to prove I am not a robot, not an artificial intelligence, this request satisfied by clicking to fill in a simple checkmark—couldn’t the robot be programmed to do that too? Meanwhile in Seoul, South Korea, a virtual influencer named Rozy, “a digitally rendered human so realistic she is often mistaken for flesh and blood” rakes in millions for her creators. A 23-year-old woman who followed Rozy for two years on social media, when told Rozy wasn’t real, said, “We communicated like friends and I felt comfortable with her,” and she decided to continue the relationship, saying she thinks of her as a real friend. Is this any different than connecting with a character in a novel, a movie, a play? Yes. We know those aren’t real. And they’re not trying to manipulate us or get us to buy anything. Or pull a trigger, push a button. They’re not trying to get us to agree with them but to further enhance our understanding of what being human has been and is. As Andrei Tarkovsky said, “In the end, everything can be reduced to the one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love. That element can grow within the soul to become the supreme factor which determines the meaning of a person’s life.”

Now, around a year after that email conversation, after writing this poem, and after reading and discussing with others many more things about AI, it seems to me that it doesn’t matter that AI has no soul, doesn’t both long for and also have doubts about God, can’t grow flowers, can’t kiss, can’t feel pain or joy—yet! It will, as with all our inventions, yield great benefits to our daily lives AND at the same time be somehow weaponized, and inevitably and irretrievably change the experience for us of what it is to live.

Meanwhile, my grandson can now say, “Love you, Grandma,” my squash plant is growing tons of squash, I recently had a lovely talk over tea with a friend, and I’ve been trying to do some sketching. I wonder, when our ancestors discovered fire, if some of them thought “Oh, this is great! We can see in the dark! We can cook food! We’re warm now when it’s cold!” and some of them thought, “This is dangerous! This is scary! This will usher in our end!” Both of them, in their own way, not wrong.

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