Jaswinder Bolina’s “English as Second Language and Other Poems” is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.
And so we’ve come to the end of the world again, and this time, it will be death by a thousand chattering bots. But apocalypse aside, most striking to me about ChatGPT and other large-language-model artificial intelligence systems is what their chatter reveals about us — specifically, our language, education, work and the grimly redundant human condition.
I happen to be a poet and teacher of poetry, so language, education and the grim human condition take up most of my Outlook calendar. In thinking about AI, I’ve become preoccupied with — and weirdly heartened by — its utter banality.
AI bots aren’t so much artificially “intelligent” as they are opportunistically efficient at learning from the bland patterns in our language. Entire industries have been built around cliched and predictable writing and thinking, from adspeak to clickbait media to the formulaic pop songs, movies and television that suck up our free time. There is so much blasé filler for AI to mine, and every sentence, paragraph and document on ChatGPT’s kill list is another example of human expression so devoid of personality that the person is rendered superfluous.
As AI proliferates, this lack of originality in our daily language is what will render so many of our jobs irrelevant. But this is where I become optimistic. Because to me, it’s clear that one of our best defenses against the rise of the writing machines might be to learn how to think like a poet.
Sure, I’m biased, but consider what the making of a poem — that small (or large) artifact William Carlos Williams famously called a “machine made of words” — can teach us.P
Diametrically opposed to cliche, poets are trained to invent and reinvent language to arrive at fresh expressions of our angst, joy, anguish and wonder.
Tracy K. Smith: “The universe is expanding. Look: postcards / And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim, / Orphan socks and napkins dried into knots.”
Though poets do focus on our gnarly existential predicaments, the poet’s first job is to keep language from stagnating or, worse, from boring us to death.Advertisement
Ross Gay: “… and thank you, too, this knuckleheaded heart, this pelican heart, / this gap-toothed heart flinging open its gaudy maw.”
Sometimes manic, sometimes depressive, poetry might indulge in bouts of narcissism and embellishment, but most of all, it must be earnest, singular and unpredictable.
David Berman: “… and if the apocalypse turns out / to be a world-wide nervous breakdown, / if our five billion minds collapse at once, / well I’d call that a surprise ending / and this hill would still be beautiful, / a place I wouldn’t mind dying / alone or with you.”
In a word, it must be human.
Despite the laudable achievements of our science, technology and engineering, it’s funny how language, not mathematics, could be the hill humanity dies on.
So, here we stand even as our algorithms whiff on their AP English exams, as they crank out bad jokes, lousy fiction and crappy poems:
“I am but a vessel, / floating on the sea of time, / Drifting on the winds of change, / A soul in search of rhyme.”
This, ChatGPT3’s response when prompted to write a poem in the style of Jaswinder Bolina, goes on for eight unremarkable stanzas before culminating in its hackneyed conclusion:
“Let us embrace the journey, / And all its twists and turns, / For in the end, we shall find, / That every step we take, in life, we learn.”
While I appreciate its optimism, this jejune algorithm might be using the word “we” a little too loosely. This is because, even if it could convincingly mimic the highly selective diction and syntax in my or anyone else’s poetry, it has no access to our idiosyncratic interiority.
It can’t remember the faces of the people I’ve loved or pained, the names of those who have hurt or needed me. It never felt the humidity breezing in through a summer window, the taut urgency of awaiting a call from the oncologist, grill smoke in the bleachers, or the melody of my mother calling me down to roti.
Here is ChatGPT’s ultimate weakness laid bare. It knows nothing of life except what it learns from us, and to learn, it needs our language. But where that language model is small, unusual and unpatterned, the machines can’t ape us.
There is a lesson in this, especially if you’re worried about your or your kids’ employment prospects. I’m not going to suggest that you tear down the walls of your cubicle and join me in the local hipster cafe. But I am going to suggest that the workers of the world, like poets, become more attentive to sensations and ideas no disembodied algorithm can experience or invent.
This means expressing experience in words and sentences that are tactile, empathetic and original. It means learning to do some of this by taking classes in creative writing, music, theater, painting and dance; by studying and making literature and art, those allegedly pointless pursuits that our culture and our universities have increasingly neglected. It means applying the lessons learned in creative enterprise to other industries, to invent new and more humane ways of using technology to answer human concerns and solve human crises.
Now, when the ability to distinguish between rote and original thinking will matter more than ever, focusing on so-called STEM and other professional fields alone — the clarion call of career counselors and university administrators — will not be enough.
After all, AI is coming for our doctors, coders, engineers and lawyers, too. Even in these fields, the career paths that wind into the yellow wood of our AI-enhanced future will belong to those inventive enough to use technology in ways no algorithm can emulate or predict.
So, let the bots inherit our dead language, dull thinking and workplace drudgery. Let the rest belong to us. Whatever we make in that real and surreal future will have to be inimitable, human and true — which is to say, it will have to be something like a poem.