The oldest-known writer in human history is Kushim, a name that was etched on several clay tablets in ancient Sumer. As a writer, Kushim wasn't quite in a league with Shakespeare or Homer -- his work consisted of lists of transactions of barley -- but he started a glorious tradition of human beings writing things and putting their names on them. That practice has existed for more than 3,000 years, and now there's speculation about whether artificial intelligence is bringing it to an end. In recent months, platforms such as GPT-4 have proven capable of everything from passing the bar exam to perfectly emulating the style of a poet or novelist. There's an old joke that writers don't really like to write; they just like to have written. In that case, why not spare yourself the hours of tedious brainstorming and revision and just order up a masterpiece with a few keystrokes?
I have two responses to that question: one from a writer's perspective, and one from a reader's. For the first, I'll offer a quote from the French novelist Gustave Flaubert that appears on a podium in my classroom: "The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe." I have never written anything without learning something about myself, and I urge my students to adopt the same attitude. You will make mistakes in the course of writing: ideas that go nowhere, reasoning that doesn't hold up, even a misplaced modifier or two. All of those foibles will help you grow as a person, and they may lead you to create something truly profound that you didn't think you had in you. As for the reader's perspective, I can say that, at least in some circumstances, I can detect AI-produced content within a few seconds. There is a coldness and slickness to it, all the more obvious when coming from writers whose work is not usually cold or slick. It has a flat formality, an over-dependence on logic and rationality. It gets everything right -- obviously, it can pass a test for a letter grade -- but it's a clear case of the mind and body without the soul.
One of my favorite games now is to identify pieces of writing that a machine couldn't possibly have created. The Poetry Foundation lobbed me an easy one this morning; its Poem of the Day is "[anyone lived in a pretty how town]" by E.E. Cummings, whose style would have confounded any AI device in the early 20th century. Yes, nowadays, you can order ChatGPT to "write a poem about two lovers in the style of E.E. Cummings." For that concept to exist, a mercurial human would have had to create it first. Artificial intelligence works efficiently by doing things the right way; human genius works by doing things gloriously the wrong way. That was Cummings, with his shifting parts of speech, self-consciously garbled punctuation, and outright mischievous approach to standard English. What algorithm in 1940 might have had the impulse to name two characters "anyone" and "noone" or twist a composite word into a syntactical beauty like "anyone's any was all to her"? No doubt a chatbot of that time also would have insisted on capitalizing all the words properly.
My poem this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder is "Segue," which came out a decade ago and is wedded in my memory to an event that AI never could have duplicated. In 2014, artist Deborah Paswaters invited me to a multimedia event in Laguna Beach that, half a century earlier, would have been dubbed a "be-in": Poets read their work aloud while a pianist improvised in response to the poetry, dancers danced in response to the music, and artists sketched the dancers. "Segue" was one of the poems that I read, and I think the one that inspired the most music, dancing, and art. The whole event was as messy and delightful as it sounds, and I still have a souvenir of it on the wall of my study; Paswaters signed and framed a sketch that she did of me and the dancers. Yes, AI can produce pictures too, and much faster than any artist. It can also produce music and poetry, maybe even choreography. But note that I'm using the verb "produce" rather than "write" or "compose." Humans do those things. I'm not sure if AI takes the same journey of discovery.
I was thinking of ending this blog entry by asking ChatGPT to write a poem in the style of "Segue," then copying and pasting it here. I've decided against it. If you want to try, though, here are the guidelines: Ask for a 39-line, six-section poem about the feeling in the house after a family member dies. Specify that you want free verse and a reference to Frank Sinatra. Require a one-word title that appears nowhere in the poem itself. Perhaps the chatbot will give you something brilliant. Perhaps it will be even better than "Segue." I frankly don't care. I am proud of this poem and accept that immodesty is human. AI can give us a masterpiece, but it can't relish its own creation. Kushim probably could.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.