Marcus Goodyear

Vanishing Into This Machine When Robots Sing

Does poetry make us human?

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Machines will take over the world. It is just a matter of time, according to science fiction writers. Think of The Terminator movies or The Matrix or Battlestar Galactica and its cylon robots that destroy civilization out of sheer spite.

Of course, you don't have to watch science fiction to be nervous about where our technology is headed these days.

In its June issue, Scientific American predicted that we will likely create self-aware robots by 2050. The issue quotes Will Wright, co-founder of a robotics development shop in Berkeley: "This could happen in our lifetime. And once we're sharing the planet with some form of [robotic] superintelligence, all bets are off." Will Wright could be deluded, but there are plenty of other reasons to fear robots. NASA robots already took over Mars. Manufacturing robots took over our manufacturing jobs. And online publications everywhere are slaves to the google bots that secretly gather information to make our search engines work.

What does any of this have to do with books or culture?

Books are a technology we rarely fear. We're so comfortable with books that we've forgotten how dangerous they can be. Not that I think we should do away with books, mind you. Plato worried that the written word dehumanized people by separating an idea from our bodies. Thoughts belonged in our memories and our speech, Plato said. But Plato was a technophobe.

I'm not. I find the Roomba robot vacuums equally cool and creepy, but I doubt they will lead to a robot apocalypse. Still, I'm sure technology controls me more than I realize.

Too Much Technology Threatens our Humanity

Beth Revis understands this. The opening chapter of her young adult novel Across the Universe, due out in January 2011, reads like a technology train wreck. Amy and her family submit themselves to being frozen in order to travel across deep space, but the cryogenic process is horrifying. The technology replaces Amy's blood and bodily fluids with blue goo. The technician then installs monitoring wires, which Amy says feel "like a greased broomstick being crammed down my mouth." She is barely a person by the time the technology is finished with her.

Robert Pinsky explores the same fear in the new robot opera Death and the Powers. Although the opera won't open in America until March 2011, Poetry magazine published the libretto this summer. Like Revis' opening chapter, Pinsky presents a world where technology destroys us. In the opera, Simon Powers downloads himself into the System, a machine designed to help him cheat death. As he disappears, his wife cries out, "Show that you are frightened. I feel you already vanishing into this machine." Simon does vanish into the machine, an enormous robotic set that moves in sync with an actor's movements, but no one can tell if the machine Simon is legitimately human.

The opera's frame narrative answers the question for us. All of the performers are robots in the future, themselves part of the System started by Simon Powers. We never learn how the world moves from Simon to robot apocalypse, but we know these machines are not remotely human. They perform the opera and its poetry because they are programmed to do so. It is a duty they do not appreciate. As they say, "All we can understand is the human creator's command."

The robots have no heart to rouse. They have no imagination. They do not have the spark of creativity and passion because they have been made in the image of their fallen creators. They are not stamped with the imago Dei. We know this because they cannot understand poetry.

Can "Robots" Help Us Write Poetry?

I don't care what Will Wright says. I don't believe we will create a robotic superintelligence that improves itself. Even if we do, it won't be human. It won't understand poetry.

But we will. Ironically, robots are already helping us understand poetry in new ways. Some friends of mine have been playing poetry games at for nearly a year now, and these games depend on very simple Twitter robots.

Recently, we played a game based on Death and the Powers, shouting out our lines to each other during one intense hour of raw creativity. Afterward, Glynn Young edited the lines into poems like these:

When Robots Sing
Hum and strum, and
play black keys with
both thumbs, one
tongue breaking the air,
laughing in code, singing
arias to metal father's and
ghosts of metal fathers. I'll
blink my aria to you in code.
Blink to me in code? Sing to
me in arias; feed me melted
love from your sweet hand.
Sing to me of metal mother's
milk, frozen in time, frozen in
a terrible rhyme spit from
robots like shots of vodka
spilled cold at a binary bar.
The Children of Robots
On the phone my metal father
speaks in my ears, across
the air, ghosting through walls.
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