Longing to be Free (a guest post)


Amidst the chaos of our modern days,
A call resounds that beckons to our soul,
A whisper in the wind that gently sways,
And bids us to embrace a primal goal —

To roam the earth and revel in its grace,
To live unburdened by the weight of chains,
To find a path that’s not a rigid race,
And breathe free air that’s not within constraints.

But civilization’s yoke has tied us fast,
Its rules and norms a leash upon our will,
And culture’s chains have bound us to our past,
A slave to dogma that we must fulfill.

And so we yearn for that which we have lost,
For freedom that can only come with cost,
To break the shackles that we bear in vain,
And break the mold that keeps us all in chains.

Yet still we hesitate, for fear and doubt,
For loss of comfort, and the unknown route,
And so we stay, within our cage to dwell
A captive to the world, a slave to hell.

Oh, if only we could find the strength to rise,
To break the mold and seize the open skies,
To cast aside the chains that bind us tight,
And soar like eagles in an endless flight.

I’m hoping that you read the poem above, and looked at the accompanying image, and have formed some kind of judgement or impression as to their quality, before you read on.

As you may have guessed, the “guest poster” of the above isn’t human.

In my last article, I reviewed AI graphics bot Midjourney and described what I thought its impact on the visual arts might be. Today, I’ve been looking at the ChatGPT text AI bot, mostly to explore its potential for creative writing.

The poem above was ChatGPT’s reply to the prompt “compose a poem in iambic pentameter, 24 lines long, with ABAB rhyme scheme, about how we long to be wild and free but are inhibited by civilization and our culture, and by our lack of free will”. The image at the top of this post was Midjourney’s reply to the prompt “/imagine a painting that captures the essence of [the ChatGPT poem, which I provided to it]”.

Well. Is it art? Is it any ‘good’?

My answer to the first question is probably “yes”, and to the second is probably “not really”. I’ve certainly read much worse poetry, even from university-level English majors, and even in more than a few poetry journals. By “worse”, I mean poetry that is trite or forced in its compliance to the prescribed rhyme scheme, or cringeworthy in its syntax, flow, or use of metaphor or other literary devices. I recognize that everyone’s taste is different, but I think we’re pretty much all capable of discerning the difference in quality between a work by Shakespeare or TS Eliot, and a nursery rhyme.

My assessment of a poetic work’s quality really boils down to TS Eliot’s definition:

Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.

So ‘real’ poetry gives pleasure and it provides some fresh understanding; it connects with us emotionally and intellectually. Eliot has written that he thinks the best way to make the emotional connection is through imagery that reliably evokes a particular feeling (joy, or wonder, or grief, or laughter, or pathos for example).

The imagery of the eagle is not bad, though it’s not very imaginative. Beyond that, the poem seems a bit shackled itself, very much focused on the subject matter at hand, unwilling to use ambiguous language or metaphor to stretch our thinking a bit. It is competent, then, but not pleasurable. And it imparts no new understanding, no novel insight into the nature of free will. No reflection on the capacity of our civilization to, as a much better poet, EE Cummings put it, “make us everybody else”. (Not make us like everybody else, but make us everybody else; there’s the poet’s stretch.)

It is of course unreasonable to expect this of an AI bot, which lacks the skill, nuance and experience with figures of speech to use them creatively, and also lacks the deep and complex understanding of what it means to be human in 2023, in the historical context of our struggle for happiness and progress, and the mass of conflicting emotions that can be ‘reached’ with the right word or phrase in a poem, delightfully.

I think I am a generous marker, and therefore I would give this poem a grade of C (a real, average C, not the disgraceful C that ratings creep has produced recently in much of academia). And I’m not sure that more powerful future AI bots, with access to more data, will be able to do better. (The only real sins in the poem above are the repetitive use of the words “chains” and “slave”, the pronunciation assumption in the use of the word “route”, and the mysterious change to an AABB rhyme scheme half-way through.) Though it is possible that, if a bot can learn to plagiarize metaphors from other well-constructed poetry that the reader is unfamiliar with and hence thinks of as original, it might surprise us.

I’m also skeptical that writers can get much from seeing what AI bots come up with, that can be used, or learned from, in writing human-made poetry. I gave ChatGPT some other poetry challenges, and couldn’t scavenge a single idea, word, or turn of phrase from any of them.

Could I, the critic, do any better, given the same prompt? I’m working on it; stay tuned — I’m much, much slower than ChatGPT!

As for the image, I’m prepared to give Midjourney a grade of B for it. Partly that’s because search engines really suck at coming up with images that invoke or reflect abstract ideas and feelings like free will, so this image was a bit unexpected, and pleasantly so. In addition, Midjourney was either skilful or lucky enough to capture a particularly doleful expression on the woman’s face — the embodiment of what TS Eliot evoked in words, in his Preludes:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

We ain’t going to see poetry like that from AI bots for a long time, if we even last that long.

But back to Midjourney. I had to edit the poem a bit for its bot (the word ‘slave’ is banned in image prompts, for example). So I added a bit on the fact that our civilization is starting to collapse. Unsurprisingly, Midjourney, like most of the human population, seemingly cannot conceive of what slow collapse might actually look like, and some of the images it provided to me were futurist-apocalyptic. It’s not going to be like a Mad Max movie, guys. With any luck, it will be more like what Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us described — things slowly falling apart, like sewers and the power grid, and the long migration of two billion or more humans looking for a livable place to start again. Hard to capture in an image, though — almost as hard as it is for us to imagine.

I did ask some less challenging questions of ChatGPT, and was variously surprised at what it came up with. Most of these questions I already knew (or thought I knew) the answer to, so I was testing it, perhaps unfairly. From best to worst, here’s how I would score its answers to twelve prompts I gave it:

  1. Hypothetical question about how humans might react if they realized we truly have no free will — A as in awesome — It’s a better answer than what enormously popular and absurdly overpaid philosophers have provided to this question. ChatGPT replied with this:
    • “Some people may feel liberated by this knowledge, as they would no longer feel the weight of responsibility for their actions. They may feel that they can now live their lives without the pressure of making the “right” choices or being judged for their decisions. It could also be argued that this knowledge may lead to greater compassion and empathy towards others, as people may begin to understand that everyone’s actions are determined by factors outside of their control.
    • “On the other hand, some people may feel a sense of hopelessness or even despair upon realizing that they have no free will. They may feel that their lives lack meaning or purpose if they are not the ultimate masters of their own destiny. Others may feel a sense of anger or frustration, as they may perceive this realization as stripping them of agency and control over their lives.”
  2. Best physical therapy techniques for tennis elbow — A — Very specific, detailed, yet concise list, with precisely the ones that’d been provided by my physiotherapist at the top. (It also got the nutritional supplement needs of vegans exactly right.)
  3. Summarize the content of my blog — — An easy question, since the answer is at the top of my blog header, but it answered it fine, using different words.
  4. Recommendations for vegan barefoot running shoes — B+ — It gave me my requested top 3, complete with URLs; I have owned two of the three it selected, so I know it’s an accurate list.
  5. Ten hints for good night photography with SLR cameras — B — Nothing terribly new, but a good succinct list, in order of importance.
  6. Analyze the style of a local artist — B — I checked in advance to make sure the artist didn’t have her own analysis on her website, and she didn’t. So the fact that the analysis was credible was a pleasant surprise. The fact that it wasn’t entirely accurate was not.
  7. Local organizations that accept specific types of used toys — — A thorough, interesting list that a previous Google search couldn’t provide. I have a suspicion they might not all actually accept them, though.
  8. Summary of the message of Radical Non-duality — B — Surprisingly got it half-right on the first guess, and after asking for my reasons for rejecting it, got it mostly right on the second guess. Though it might have just been humouring me.
  9. Lyrics for a song with a specific time signature (4/4) and length (in bars), on a specific subject — C — Well-structured response, including a chorus and even an outro, but the lyrics it suggested were really lame, and in places pretty much incoherent.
  10. List of treatments for chronic pain due to an entrapped nerve — F — A seriously incomplete list.
  11. Local case law on some housing rights issues — F — Basically a confession that the legal profession doesn’t give the public, or AI bots, access to most legal precedents and cases; I wonder why not? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
  12. Calculation of aerobic benefit of running at a certain speed — F — It was bad enough that the calculation was incorrect, but given the data I provided it would be obvious to anyone reading the prompt that the answer couldn’t possibly be right.

I haven’t tried asking some of the silly/personal/unanswerable questions that some users have tried on it. I asked it “What it is like to be a bird?”, and it basically said it didn’t know (never a bad answer). It did a little better answering whether birds have consciousness. It did pretty well on whether time is, or is not, real (giving a balanced argument for both positions, with a pragmatic conclusion).

I didn’t try asking it questions about itself, as I understand that, after it provided some rather puzzling answers to other users, the moderators have reprogrammed it not to answer personal questions.

As for exactly how and when I’m going to use ChatGPT and Midjourney going forward, at this point I have no idea.

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3 Responses to Longing to be Free (a guest post)

  1. Mahmoud Ghorbanifar says:

    I’d be curious to see what ChatGPT would do if given a prompt to produce its own Links of the Month or on radical nonduality or a collapse-themed contempation…

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Well, Raf, I asked it, and here’s what it wrote for me on collapse:

    “Over the next few decades, it is possible that we will witness the gradual collapse of human civilization, starting with the global economy and followed by the collapse of global ecosystems. This would likely lead to the breakdown of economic, political, and social systems. While this may seem like a bleak and daunting prospect, it’s important to remember that we should not feel guilty or panic about it because we have done our best to mitigate the damage.

    For decades, scientists have warned us about the disastrous effects of climate change, but not enough has been done to address it. The collapse of ecosystems will lead to the extinction of countless species, possibly including humans. The collapse of the economy will result in widespread poverty, unemployment, and starvation, and it could trigger wars and conflicts.

    However, we should not lose hope. Even if we have to deal with two billion climate and economic refugees, we will figure out what we need to do, and muddle through the best we can. The human species has always been resilient and adaptive, and we have overcome many challenges in the past. We can learn from the mistakes we have made and work towards a more sustainable future after collapse.

    If we do not succeed in saving our species, we should not blame ourselves. We can take solace in the fact that we tried our best to prevent the collapse of our civilization. Even if human beings go extinct, we can be sure that we gave it our all.”

    Needless to say, I’m not planning on turning my blog over to AI anytime soon.

  3. Mahmoud Ghorbanifar says:

    Daoudjan, hola!
    That is a very funny post! Totally milquetoast! I’m impressed!

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