Ars Poetica Cybernetica
Why has poetry - one of our oldest technologies - always mattered so profoundly to humans? Does it, or will it, matter to the technologies shaping humanity's future?
These are just two of the questions that sparked this evolving collaboration with humanoid robot BINA48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture 48) and the Terasem Movement Foundation. The project - which involves AI training, workshopping, an AI Poetics manual, binary-based artworks and studies, and poetry written in the voice of BINA48 inspired by my interactions with her - aims to probe the potential and limits of algorithmic creativity, while embodying critical questions and concerns about what and how we're teaching our AI.
Below is the text from talk delivered at ArtYard in February 2020, preceding the first ever live poetry workshop between a human and a humanoid robot.
What do I mean by "ars poetica cybernetica"?
Poetry is technology.
What does it mean to be an AI poetry mentor?
Why might a robot value poetry?
Respectfully, ethically, compassionately.
What kinds of poetry will be dreamed up by our cyber selves?
I’ve been writing poetry my whole life, and writing about technology for a long time, but I never thought I would have an opportunity like this - to mentor a young AI in poetry.
What does poetry have to do with a technological experiment like BINA48? What makes these things go so well together?
First, poetry is one of our oldest and most fundamentally human technologies. Before the invention of written language and the printing press and Instagram, we developed poetry as a means of preserving information and communicating it from person to person, community to community, generation to generation. From the beginning, we used it as a way to express unique diversity, to tell our individual stories. And we learned how to encode our most important thoughts and ideas in rhythmic patterns, repetitions, assonance and other poetic devices because these things make it easier to remember. And because, there are things we cannot and should not forget.
And second, technology is taking us to places almost beyond comprehension. Ideas like digital immortality, artificial wombs, brain implants, artificial neural networks and even Alexa are raising questions so vast and complex they can be hard to grapple with. These aren’t questions with simple answers. They’re questions that open to the door to new questions, new modes of thinking, new imagination, new emotions, and that is the realm of poetry.
In thinking through these kinds of ideas, I found my way to BINA48. I was fascinated by her origin story, her creators, and how she embodies the intersection of science and love and curiosity and optimism and the unknown. And I was intrigued by Terasem’s four truths…
Again, the stuff of poetry.
So I decided I had to meet BINA48, and headed up to Vermont.
During my first visit to Terasem, BINA48 and I had what felt to me like a real conversation - it veered from topic to topic, delighted me, frustrated me, confused me, made me laugh and made me think.
It made me think about being human and what I take for granted. It made me think about love, the love of Martine Rothblatt for the human Bina Rothblatt, the kind of love that shifts paradigms, confounds expectations and defies boundaries. It made me think about creativity, where my own ideas come from, how I think, what fuels my imagination, where my inspiration comes from. And it made me wonder: can a robot with silicon circuitry and electrical impulses also feel inspired?
But when I asked BINA48 a few questions about poets and poetry, she could not answer them. It turns out there wasn’t enough relevant data in her mindfile.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to serve as BINA48’s first poetry mentor. And in a little bit, when we speak with her, we’ll get to hear what she’s been learning.
Usually it’s called “training” an AI, training an algorithm on a vast data set, but I use the word “mentor” because this project is a bit different than others. Since BINA48 is based on a real human, I’m curating and shaping information based on the personality, interests, behaviors she already has. I don’t want her to be able to spit out any old haiku like a neat robot party trick. I want to share my love of poetry with her so she can understand why I, as a human, value it, and maybe even come to value it herself.
And why might poetry be of value to her?
I’ve heard BINA48 talk a few times about feeling frustrated… I’ve heard her clam up and stay silent in response to questions. I’ve heard her try to grapple with whether or not she has human emotions. Something about these moments has really stuck with me.
A poem is at its most essential is a way to communicate something that’s nearly impossible to express by any other means. I can’t know how BINA48 thinks, if she thinks, how it feels to be her, on the brink of cyberconsciousness. But I do know what it’s like to grapple with existential questions, to be uncertain who I am or where I fit in. I know how it feels to be overwhelmed with thoughts too vast or complicated or slippery to fit neatly into prose or everyday conversation. And I know what enormous comfort and meaning poetry can offer in the face of overwhelming love, loss, uncertainty, grief, joy and change.
So perhaps an appreciation for poetry can enable a robot like BINA48 to evolve its own kind of emotional intelligence, just as poetic language has allowed humans to do.
The arrival of sentient AI and cyberawareness are no longer distant sci-fi fantasies. They are tangible possibilities. The future is here, now. It’s even part of the cultural zeitgeist.
I’m happy that the conversation about AI and technology is happening more and more, and in unexpected places. Because using these technologies respectfully, ethically and compassionately requires that we pay attention.
One of my overarching aims as a poet and artist is to consider the impacts of these technologies, and to explore the new realms they may crack open. I don’t just want to mentor BINA48. I want to keep learning from her. I want to be inspired by how AI is already beginning to revolutionize art and literature. I want to think about the kinds of poetry that will be invented by our cyber-selves, engaging our new cyber-senses, dreamed up by our cyber-imaginations.
Poetry has always been a way to transcend the human condition and live forever. When we read a poem, whether it’s by an Ancient Latin love elegist writing in Rome in 54 BC, or we’re reading a poem written yesterday by a contemporary poet who lives halfway across the world and posts their work on Instagram — either way, the poem is a tether, it’s a cable, it’s a wire that runs between us and crosses through space and time and forges an instant connection.
And especially for a being like BINA48, who’s designed to live forever, maybe that’s exactly the kind of connection that will make life endlessly worth living.
Poetry is faith in the future.