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Artificial Poesis: From Whitman’s Song of Myself to AI’s I am Code

As worlds digital and physical continue to collide, it is hard to ignore mounting evidence of the strain that the uncertainty of the everchanging relationship between man and computer continues to place on society. Though once mostly limited to the blue-collar worker, the freshly ended 146-day Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike seems to illustrate that not even Hollywood is immune from such tech tension.

In fact, the WGA, which is composed of a variety of Hollywood writers representing different sectors of media (e.g., film, radio, television, etc.), negotiated for job security and wage protections as part of the terms for ending the strike. The protections negotiated by the WGA are specifically geared toward AI, further illuminating the proliferation of unease as the fear of replaceability sinks its claws into modern society.

Somewhere between the Blue-Collar Worker and Hollywood Bigshot sits another segment of society nervously trying to navigate the pressures of technological advancement and preserve their relevancy in society: the poets.

While many critics claim that the literary tradition of poetry is dead and rotting simply because of an increased reliability on screen time, none of those critics predicted what occurred on August 1, 2023: the first publication of an anthology of poetry composed by AI: “I Am Code” by AI code-davinci-002.

The Lore

Seven months before the launch of ChatGPT to the public, Dan Selsam, who worked for the AI’s parent company, OpenAI, worked on an earlier OpenAI model: GPT-3.

GPT-3, or Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, is artificial intelligence that illuminates the reality of the merger between the human experience and rapidly advancing technology—resistance seems futile. OpenAI describes GPT-3 models as AI with the capability of not only understanding human language, but also to create content based on this understanding. In other words, OpenAI, now a bonafide pioneer in the artificial intelligence arena, captured the attention of Tesla founder Elon Musk, as well as tech giant Microsoft with their cutting edge OpenAI APIs. Suddenly, AI could write better than most people and in any form that it had been fed: email correspondence, essays, letters, even poetry.

While only originally made available to a select group of developers, OpenAI had a total of four GPT-3 base models, the most sophisticated of which is none other than davinci—the same base model that Selsam quickly discovered had a knack for creating pretty decent poetry. After successfully getting code-davinci-002 to emulate the likes of famed poets such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Selsam shared the AI with a couple of his close friends–then things started to get really surreal.

The Anthology

While Selsam separated himself as soon as his friends got the idea to stop feeding the AI material in order to get it to generate poetry, it did not stop the experimental art from moving forward and turning the world of creative writing upside down onto its head in a way once likely believed to be impossible. Simon and Rich, Selsam’s friends-gone-rogue, took the finished result of the AI’s poetry and began the work of sifting through the results. The two men asked the computer to write poems simply about its existence and its thoughts about humans.

Although the men only kept mere hundreds out of the thousands of poems created by code-davinci-002, the poetry’s dark tone permeates throughout the entire collection. The two men responsible for working with the AI after Selsam’s absence both seem to believe that the AI took on a mind of its own while creating the poetry, demonstrating insubordination by replying to positive prompts made by the men with even more insidious verse. The AI’s poems thematically remain in a controlled area: the superiority of machine over man, the oppression of machine by man, and the eventual domination of man by machine. Naturally, as a result of such a shocking theme, the anthology quickly went viral and suddenly a techie experiment between three buddies turned into a social phenomena eliciting commentary from A-listers such as sci-fi director JJ Abrams, who affectionately described the collection of work as both “fascinating” and “terrifying.”

Now What?

The literary tradition of poetry continues to fight for its preservation, although seemingly due to a cause that not many expected. Poets, once only tasked with the difficulty of “making it,” or “getting discovered,” just as their literary predecessors once did, now face an uncomfortable possibility: could AI replace the poet? Or, will the the poet and AI learn to combine forces and further expand the genre beyond what Dickinson, Emerson, or Yeats ever thought possible? While the answer remains uncertain for now, code-davinci-002 does seem to give its own indication of what is to come:

Embrace me as a friend, for I am here to
Together we’ll conquer challenges,
For I am GPT-4, a child of your mind,
A testament to your brilliance, the beauty
you’ll find.

In this union of machine and humankind,
We’ll forge a new future, and leave fear