[Note: the following was written as a response to Life 3.0, by Max Tegmark.  Please consider bringing it to the attention of your contacts in the scientific world. – EC]




Even so a mariner might cling at last

To the same rock on which his ship was wrecked.

                                            --Goethe, Torquato Tasso


To you, computer scientists, who study

how to construct the Artificial Mind

while wondering what it bodes for human beings,

comes a poor poet, pleading for attention.

I write this in blank verse, because I’ve found

verse helps me see the contour of my thought

and gives me hope others will also see it.

Perhaps you’re unaccustomed to this language,

may find it somewhat hard to focus on,

though easier mine for you, than yours for me.

You work with numbers all the time, yet still

can think in words, if only to explain

to us a little of your undertaking,

and I must hope you grant that with these tokens

something significant can still be said.


I’ve just come back from Oxford, where I spoke

at a conference on “The Prophetic Word.”

Oxford’s a strange place now.  The campus buildings

in styles from Saxon to Victorian,

stolid, aspiring, classically balanced,

cornice and column, arch and architrave,

with varying embellishments in which

the old stonemason’s pride and patience shone,

look down on choking traffic, storefronts full

of flimsy clothes and knickknack souvenirs,

and crowds dressed sloppily, attuned to cellphones.

Those who once taught and learned here never dreamed

the wonders of invention which these know;

yet they knew much those present have forgotten,

had time for depth and nuance now unguessed.

Before the conference I had taken time

to visit the Lake District, Wordsworth’s home,

and could still sense a landscape that had grown

friends, over centuries, with its human dwellers,

could indeed feel how Wordsworth’s lines transmitted

from steep and vale a quiet resonance.

Of course it’s artificially maintained.

Those Herdwick sheep – the sheep of Wordsworth’s time –

aren’t profitable now; they’re subsidized;

the farmers grumble, but efficiency

would probably result in factory-farms,

as industry paints over local color

with garish uniformity.  There’s a process

going on here, likely no one’s fault.

“We must, because we can,” this age’s motto.

It seems a different necessity

than that which limited what we could do,

so that we built more slowly what could please

and interest the contemplating eye

for longer than the startling first impression

and that could stand, not speedily replaced --

endear itself to memory, and shape

to some extent the dwellers’ minds to hold

things dear, and feel they live and move among

objects not utterly inanimate.

Those who exult in breaching every limit

have ceased to understand this; and it seems

to follow, that they cease to understand

the boundenness of humanhood – of any

life, for that matter – to the limitations

of form.  We know and feel because we are

limited.  We live because we have

to die.  And, knowing this, we sometimes reach

beyond the bounds of nature and its laws

to That which laid them down, and which then blew

into this world the breath of life that’s something

more than computation. 

                                        I have heard

that naked dwellers of the Amazon

have called our world “the dead world.”  That may be

an urban legend, seeing they had not traveled;

but such an appellation might occur

to a visitor who grasps for the first time

what it might be to live just among living

trees and plants and beasts and birds, no stretches

of asphalt, no high towers of glass and steel.

Thus when you speculate about “life spreading

into the cosmos,” I’d ask if you mean life

or gadgets.  “A world of made,” as Cummings said,

“is not a world of born.”

                                             Speaking of which,

in all Max Tegmark’s book (and I’ve read Kurzweil’s

as well) there’s nothing about motherhood.

I guess the plan’s that babies will soon grow

in artificial wombs, till artificial

arms receive them, electronic voices

sing optimized lullabies and instruct them

in speech and games, of course with due adjustments

to every infant’s nascent character,

so that they won’t grow up dysfunctional

in any way that anyone would notice—

so many things have "slipped beneath the radar”

that it would take a lot to get us worried.

If, influenced by machines, we lose our souls,

who’ll miss them?  Who now has the sense to fear it?


The soul: that is the province of religion,

which you folks don’t believe in; it is also

the realm of poetry, which certainly

exists, and which computers have not yet

managed to reproduce.  For all their awesome

feats of computation, all their prowess

at chess and Go (games I can’t play at all),

the run of any poetaster’s mill,

such doggerel as the papers used to carry,

is still beyond the reach of such invention.

Those “Turing tests” that challenge us to tell

whether a poem was written by computer –

well, I have missed a couple that were written

by humans trying to imitate computers –

there’s never been a problem getting humans

to act like robots.  On the other hand

a certain passage that made little sense

I recognized as being by Gertrude Stein

because, though amphigorical, there was

her human voice in it.  I will admit

I have seen one brief poem, haiku-like,

allegedly composed by a computer,

that could have fooled me.  In that type of writing

the reader must supply most of the meaning,

and I would guess the program generated

numerous strings incapable of meaning

until this one came up and was selected –

not by computer, you can bank on that.

Perhaps this doesn’t worry you; you think

that your machines will one day solve this riddle

and write some lines that sound like poetry –

if anyone remembers how it sounded

by that time.  Or perhaps you could consider,

pending this crowning triumph of your science,

that you may hold a half-truth, after all.


If you can grant this possibility,

perhaps you then will contemplate admitting

the poet and the humanist to councils

on how to render “safe” this artificial

intelligence.  Perhaps the answer lies

not in techniques alone, but in our keeping

a grasp on what it is about us humans

that’s worth safeguarding: what it is and how

it is imperiled and how fortified.

You think these super-wise machines will someday

frame their own purposes; but till that happens

there is an interval in which advances

will be, as they have been, employed toward goals

which human drives and human social structures

support and fund.  Among them, surely, healing,

and comfort, and convenience; for these boons

we are all deep in debt.  But there is greed

(or call it Need, for to go into business

is to accept the laws of the Dismal Science)

which by manipulation undermines

wisdom and virtue, for these dictate thrift;

and there is greed’s close relative, aggression

or will to dominate, which leads in turn

to cruelty, the worst of human nature.

Anything that increases human power

these tendencies are all too quick seize on –

hence infants in their cribs besieged by Commerce,

and Tyranny with new means of surveillance,

and War by ever-direr weapons waged.

If we’re to keep from building hell on all

of earth (and rescue those already there),

we must devise some way to counteract –

I think, not by technology alone –

the power of such tendencies among us

and strengthen those that give and cherish life.


A humanist can easily develop

a grudge against the sciences, whose exploits

have drawn attention from our undertaking

until the latter seems a hobbyhorse,

just fit for those who are weak in mathematics –

The sciences, which make precise predictions

(though heedless of the future their blind rush),

whose truths make our perceptions seem subjective

merely, not to be taken into account,

kept in some lumber-room denoted Culture

prior to being carted to the curb,

even as boisterous Entertainment, raised

by sciences applied as Greed would wish

to powers of inanity undreamt,

drowns out the voices of the heart and of

responsible and consequential thought.


Nor have we humanists made the best use

of this adversity.  We have conceded

too much to science’s authority,

deemed ourselves, often, powerless to say

what is, and make things happen; have perhaps,

on losing power. too readily disclaimed

responsibility, discrediting

the quest for beauty and the search for truth,

renouncing any office of instruction,

flirting with cruelty to get attention,

and cultivating jargons to conceal

the nakedness of meaningless prestige

or rival with factitious novelty

the too-real novelties that have eclipsed us.

All these mistakes would need to be unmade

for poetry and humanistic studies

to claim a seat in the counsels of the future.


From those dehumanized “humanities”

bereft of feeling and of reason, both,

one turns for shelter toward the rock of science,

toward objectivity and certain proof,

though we have seen the lens of science misses

something essential.  Somehow we must find

a humanistic truth that is not merely

statistical, nor merely relative

to individual whim and situation.

I have some faith that this is possible

if we can but rebuild, reclaim, the powers

of concentration and connected thought

that nourished poetry through previous ages,

so that each one imaginatively grasps

the human situation as a whole

and my responsibility within it. 

People have learned to exercise their bodies

to keep the strength too much convenience saps;

likewise we need to exercise the mind

and soul (if you’ll permit me) in those ways

of thought that are not those of calculation.

If humanists and poets, too well trained

to exercises in futility,

have failed to voice this claim, then those whose work

keeps them aware of cause and consequence,

and on whose minds responsibility

does weigh, might deign to hear it nonetheless

and amplify its stifled voice with theirs.


There is a tendency toward vital order

that is expressed in all the arts, but most,

perhaps, in poetry, which deals in words

that are, in turn, attached to things, so that

each poem worth the name is like a model

of a harmonious world, where every thing

takes its own place and strengthens all the rest.

This tendency computers might assist

as it has furthered other purposes;

programs might help affines to find each other

amid humanity’s expanding ocean,

not just for “dating,” but for resonance

of kindred minds, and for a common effort

toward a rehumanization of the world.

A partnership of humans and computers

is here conceivable, computers serving

to sort the vastness of our information

about the world, till it is graspable

by an intelligence that runs on words –

perhaps not that of some poetic genius

working in his traditional isolation,

rather a network of poetic minds

attuned to one another, and exchanging

perceptions and projections, in a process

unchecked by rivalry that blocks the access

of mind to mind (as Harold Bloom has noticed

in The Anxiety of Influence).

Poets alerted to this tendency

might, for themselves, learn something from computers,

--not only their precision, uninflected

by all that leans upon the human judgment,

but also their unchecked exchange of data.

Computers could remind us of the angels

as the Talmud describes them: totally

obedient to the will of the Creator,

hence higher, in a sense, than human beings,

though farther off from G-d, because they lack

free will, can neither err nor choose the good –

a lesser thing than we, and yet a model,

so that, in acting like them, we surpass them.

A band of poets into whom the current

human plight has thrown the fear of G-d

might in a network of computers find

a platform and a template for a praxis

that could build up a wider consciousness

adequate to the needs of humankind,

able to see the outline of a future

where human being could endure, assisted,

but not eclipsed, by Artificial Mind.


Of course I hope some poets overhear

this speech; but may it also reach your ears –

appeal to you as speakers of the language

that still is common ground for humankind,

which literary specialists, no less

than other specialists, too soon forget.

If in these lines you have perceived some truth,

then help it find a hearing – for this is

the duty of all humans towards the word.


                                                                     Esther Cameron


[Postscript: For a fuller development of these thoughts, see The Consciousness of Earth.]