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Can Humans Really Be Replaced?

Posted on 05 Feb | 1 comment
Can Humans Really Be Replaced?

We are deeply unsure about the differences between man and machine in the 21st century.

The movie “Her” presumes that a slightly more advanced operating system will be capable of love and self-actualization. In The New York Times, David Brooks has devoted several columns to asking what kind of people will thrive in an era where computers have taken over everything.

Virtually nowhere can one find a dissenting voice, suggesting that big data and unlimited computing power won’t lead to a wholesale replacement of mankind across every profession, hobby, and even vice.

This lack of an argument isn’t just representative of optimism for technology: it comes from a pessimism about humanity. As I have written before, following the lead of researchers such as Sherry Turkle, many of the “advances” ascribed to Artificial Intelligence come not from the achievements of AI in previously human realms, but from dumbing down what we expect from people.

No one would ever mistake an ATM for an actual human bank-teller—the experiences of each are utterly different, as are their capacities—but we say that ATMs have replaced bank tellers as though the two were indistinguishable. The same holds true for customer service on phone calls: for all the legitimately amazing things machines can do with voice recognition, they are simply not comparable to having a conversation with a human being. Yet the one has replaced the other: instead of demanding that our machines perform as well as human beings, which they have not and cannot, we have lowered our standards for what we expect to get.

This holds true from algorithms that recommend books you might want to read to movies you want to see—we’re far more likely to trust the opinions of people who know us and have read the books than the algorithms that watch everything we buy, for a reason. It’s not the same experience, and the algorithms simply aren’t as good at it. The apologists for Artificial Intelligence are only able to make a case for the equality of machine intelligence by lowering our expectations of human intelligence.

The most extraordinary example of this that I’ve seen—perhaps ever—was published last week on Vice.com’s “Motherboard” blog. The headline: “Robots are Coming for Our Poems.

In it, self-described “utopianist” Brian Merchant goes through a quick tour of hardware and software devoted to writing poetry. This itself presents an interesting philosophical conundrum: given that poetry is an attempt to create a shared subjective state with language, rather than advance an idea or make an argument, is it really possible for poetry to be created by entities that lack a subjective state?

We can argue that all day, and I’d enjoy it, but I’m more stunned by the examples Merchant brings forward of how capable machine intelligence is in poetics. “(T)hey’re doing it better than most humans,” he says.

His proof? He provides this example, from “Pentametron,” a program that scans tweets for statements in iambic pentameter and then combines them into rhyming couplets:

1. I'm going swimming after school #hooray
2. I wanna hear a special song today :) !
3. Last project presentation of the year!!!!
4. Miami Sunset Drive/A. normal clear :)
5. Good music always helps the morning squat!!!!
6. McDonalds breAkfast always hit the spot
7. do you remember ? that october night ..
8. Alright alright alright alright alright
9. I taught y'all bitches half the shit y'all know.
10. Why pablo hating on Hondurans though ?
11. I wonder who the Broncos gonna pick?
12. I gotta get myself a swagger stick
13. By Changing Nothing, Nothing changes. #Right?
14. Why everybody eagle fans tonight

“It pretty nicely captures the cadence and sensibility of modern life, right?” he declares.

Um, no. Oh God no. That is an absolutely terrible poem, being held up as an example of how capable computers are of writing poetry. The fact that it rhymes and is in iambic pentameter does, absolutely, mean a computer program can recognize rhyme and pentameter, which is in itself impressive. But it doesn’t justify the awfulness of the poem itself, which, if one must actually mount a critique, lurches from banal statement to non-sequitur question without any sense of either overarching theme or aesthetic unity, let alone beauty of language and meaning of symbol.

The fact that many humans write bad poetry does not suggest that this poem is any good, anymore than the fact that humans make math mistakes justifies a calculator that thinks 2+2 = 5.

It may be an impressive computer program, but it’s a lousy poem.

This is equally true for his second example, an even more complex algorithm that imitates Shakespearean sonnets, “Swift-Speare,” and produced this:

When I in dreams behold thy fairest shade
Whose shade in dreams doth wake the sleeping morn
The daytime shadow of my love betray’d
Lends hideous night to dreaming’s faded form
Were painted frowns to gild mere false rebuff
Then shoulds’t my heart be patient as the sands
For nature’s smile is ornament enough
When thy gold lips unloose their drooping bands
As clouds occlude the globe’s enshrouded fears
Which can by no astron’my be assail’d
Thus, thyne appearance tears in atmospheres
No fond perceptions nor no gaze unveils
Disperse the clouds which banish light from thee
For no tears be true, until we truly see

The language is “Shakespearean” only in the sense that it’s archaic. It must be a love poem because it mentions “love betrayed,” but what actually happened here? Who’s loving? What was the betrayal? How does the poem’s narrator feel about it? What mood does the poem create?

“Nature’s smile” is “ornament enough” for what, exactly? And why would the fact that “painted frowns” would “gild mere false rebuff mean that his heard should be patient?

These questions have no clear answers, to the extent they have answers at all, because the poem’s a mess. That’s as true at the micro-level as it is at the macro: what does it mean for lips to “unloose their drooping bands”? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that “clouds occlude the globe’s enshrouded fears”? What does that line even mean? And how does a frown gild something, anyway? To gild (literally to cover with gold) is to make more beautiful or pleasing. Does a frown do that?

The use of archaic language is certainly impressive from a machine, but it obscures the fact that this is a pretty God-awful poem.

Yet, Merchant holds it up as exemplary. “These are pretty good poems. They’re surprising, moving, weird, even a little touching. It’s actually good poetry.”

No, they aren’t, and it isn’t. But to admit that is to admit that there’s a whole frontier of human capacity and experience that algorithms can’t address—and since we can’t build a computer to write adequate (let alone good) poetry, we lower our standards to what the machines can do.

Just so we’re clear, this is what a good poem looks like—it’s by former poet laureate Billy Collins, uses plain language, and as an added bonus contains thoughts on poetics, meaning, and language:

Winter Syntax

Marrying left your maiden name disused,
Its five light sounds no longer mean your face,
Your voice, and all your variants of grace;
For since you were so thankfully confused
By law with someone else, you cannot be
Semantically the same as that young beauty;
It was of her that these two words were used.
Now it’s a phrase applicable to no one,
Lying just where you left it, scattered through
Old lists, old programmes, a school prize or two,
Packets of letters tied with tartan ribbon—
Then is it scentless, weightless, strengthless, wholly
Untruthful? Try whispering it slowly.
No, it means you. Or, since you’re past and gone,
It means what we feel now about you then:
How beautiful you were, and near, and young,
So vivid you might still be there among
Those first few days, unfingermarked again.
So your old name shelters our faithfulness,
Instead of losing shape and meaning less
With your depreciating luggage laden.

Note not only the beauty of individual lines, but also the coherent theme expressed throughout the entire poem and the way in which individual elements contribute to the entirety of the meaning (the way an alphabet of bootprints left in the snow of a valley can form a full message for field mice and passing crows). These are all elements that the computer poems entirely lack. A coherent perspective on life, expressed beautifully—and a particular mood that goes hand in hand with the theme.

Or, just to belabor the point, here is another truly fine poem—very different from the excellent poem above—by Philip Larkin:

Maiden Name

Marrying left your maiden name disused,
Its five light sounds no longer mean your face,
Your voice, and all your variants of grace;
For since you were so thankfully confused
By law with someone else, you cannot be
Semantically the same as that young beauty;
It was of her that these two words were used.
Now it’s a phrase applicable to no one,
Lying just where you left it, scattered through
Old lists, old programmes, a school prize or two,
Packets of letters tied with tartan ribbon—
Then is it scentless, weightless, strengthless, wholly
Untruthful? Try whispering it slowly.
No, it means you. Or, since you’re past and gone,
It means what we feel now about you then:
How beautiful you were, and near, and young,
So vivid you might still be there among
Those first few days, unfingermarked again.
So your old name shelters our faithfulness,
Instead of losing shape and meaning less
With your depreciating luggage laden.

This poem rhymes, but the rhyme—which a computer absolutely could duplicate—is the very least interesting aspect of the poem. It is all the rest that we care about, and all the rest that the machines that have come from our poetry lack.

The lesson here—aside from not taking advice about poetry from techno-utopians—is that there is much humanity, and human beings, have to offer that even the most complex and extraordinary of machines cannot approach, let alone duplicate.

It takes nothing away from the achievements of these machines to acknowledge that human beings are extraordinary too, and not so easily imitated. Even in the 21st century, there are many differences between man and machine.

-- Benjamin Wachs

Benjamin Wachs archives his writing at TheWachsGallery.com, and is the author of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City.”

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It's comforting to know

It's comforting to know computers can not come anywhere near to replicating the beauty of poetry.

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