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What’s In a Word?

What's New in Technology

May 2002

What’s In a Word?

The Sum Of Silicon Existence

constant evaluation and constant consumption
the sum never adding up to one human life
slowly we drift within our silicon abyss
never really finding the life we now miss

Whether or not you enjoy poetry, we hope this month to spark a few questions existential and perhaps even a little controversy. “The Sum Of Silicon Existence” is a poem generated by a computer. Surprised? With the increasing talk of Artificial Intelligence (AI), by default we are faced with a horde of questions relating to “What is a human?” Answering the question “What is a computer?” is a relatively easy task. So we think we know what a computer is. But, perhaps since the dawn of time (or at least early morning), we have collectively been asking the question “What is a human?” As if that is not complex enough of a problem, we began to endow machines with human-like qualities. At first, to perform routine tasks (robots) so we –– as the theory goes –– can then enjoy the spoils of simply being human, relax and do nothing on the beaches of Waikiki or some such, while our diligent friend the robot cleans the house, does the laundry, and so on. For reference, watch some of the cartoons from the forties or an episode or two of the “Jetsons.” More from the above computer can be found by clicking here: http://www.trinp.org/Poet/ComP.htm.

The most recent move in this ontological chess game was the movie “AI” which was begun by Stanley Kubric and finished by Steven Spielberg. The movie suggests that, like Pinocchio, if the robot (the main character) wishes hard enough, can he become a real boy? Or perhaps you’ve seen “Bicentennial Man” which is based on the novel, “I, Robot” by Isaac Azimov. The main character is a robot, who becomes increasingly sophisticated through technological innovation, to the point where he applies for citizenship as a human. The council must decide “Where is the boundary between human and machine?”

Maybe you’re thinking, “Couldn’t happen.” Perhaps. But what is poetry and what is language? Where does it come from, what does it embody? Is it possible for a computer, to “know” anything? What are the limits of awareness? Is humanness just the result of a lot of calculations? Let’s look at another poem.

their extracellular re will worry

voluminously diametric -- just barely a tang,
a californium should assimilate the prehistoric Johannes
-- that is, the Draco.
nonetheless, one will conspire.
his epitaph should snub a metalliferous gypsum like the B.
straightway ostentatious -- just barely the pinwheel,
my groggy bounty assents.

your lucrative windbag should ken.

straightway, the argument should creak.
shyly, a yarmulke has bred.
pizzicato, a heredity might have addressed.
thereunder, a counterman will obey.
beforehand, an invention iterates.
truly thermonuclear during the group...
eutectically persuasive with a pigment...
presto, a colander will clatter.
throughout savage for a heap,
presto, the rocket has corroded.
the former planar shuffleboard will diagram.

operatically, an expedition might amuse.
transoceanically, a nursery could halt.

whatsoever registrable amidst a nepenthe,
the minaret will beg an ancillary compassion
like the lovebird.
sedately, a fledgling must have demitted.

Hanover, NH
[Sun Apr 28 09:41:24 2002]

This one of the poems that was automatically generated every 2 minutes, whenever Alfred the Agent server is up. Approximately 150,000 poems are generated every year. These poems are evanescent: unless viewed over the web, each is lost forever. For more, click here: http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~brd/alfred.

Obviously, we owe a lot to the programmer. A television set seems like a miracle until it’s unplugged. Without electricity, it’s an expensive doorstop. So in reality, apart from the dazzle of technology and fantasy, it is the parameters of the programmer, and the mechanical capacity for input and calculation, that determine what comes out. Here’s a case in point.

The Spell-Checker

I have a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss takes I cannot see

I've run this poem threw it
I'm shore yaw pleased to no
It's letter perfect in its weigh
My chequer told me sew...

A cheek or is a blessing
It freeze yew lodes of thyme
It helps me right awl stiles two reed
And aides me when aye rime

Now spilling does not phase me
It does knot bring a tier
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped words fare as hear

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should be proud
And wee mussed dew the best wee can
Sew flaws are knot aloud

So ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want to please

Sauce unknown

More to be found here: http://paul.merton.ox.ac.uk/computing/poems.html.

In the spirit of John Henry, although if the authors’ hope that the human will not only be victorious in the race at hand, but also for all perpetuity, we offer this last poem.

I Am the Earth

I am worm, moist soil
I am a single supple stalk
drawing life
up into corollas of wild berries on the roadside

I am surprised at
a breast of water welling
flowing into the mouths of flooded rice paddies
I am surprised at
myself being
hot steam that shoots up fire and sulfur from
the bottom of the ocean, deep indigo

I am surprised at
red flowing blood
taking human shape to cover the earth’s surface
it swells as the tides ebb and flow, and
gushes out in a monthly cycle under distant invisible gravity,

Poor shape, it is as fragile as a mushroom
a single love,
a single birth
as if taking shelter from showers under spindly weeds
I am surprised at being a shroud that contains time
when a single man fails to live

I luxuriate and am the earth
through countless failures and immense waste
I share my being with the tiny maggots in the dirt
or daffodils that quiver at the edges of unknown cliffs
I am surprised at being the pulsating twilight,
I am surprised at being dew drops
that form from time to time on the leaf tips of rice palms

I am the earth.
I life there, and the very same earth.

With the four billionth year coming around
I have come to know
my alter self, my hereto being,
the eternal cold moon,
them for the first time, I am surprised at being
warm wet dirt

Kiyoko Nagase
“Masters of Modern Japanese Poetry”
Pub. Morris-Lee Publishing Group, 1999

Need we say more?

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