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AI Poetry Slam: The Power of Fiction

[M]yth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.

- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

When I first read those words I thought they were ridiculous. I thought that in a book meant to be scientific and objective, words that grand were simply out of place. That words like “inexhaustible energies of the cosmos” had no place in a serious discussion. It was improper, I thought, to ascribe such transcendent power to fiction of all things.

It should be noted that from the ages of 12 to 18 I was far more likely to pick up a textbook on organic chemistry or atmospheric electrodynamics than I was to lose myself in the ramblings of Vonnegut or Dostoyevsky’s Idiot. The power of prose was lost on me. If I wasn’t learning cold, hard facts I was wasting my time.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl changed all that for me.

I remember very distinctly its rhythm and Beat sinking its claws into my mind and dragging me through blake-light tragedies and bop kabbalah and those unholy cries of Moloch. When Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy I was there too. The words of Howl convinced me that Joseph Campbell was, if anything, under-selling the power of fiction.

All that might seem strange from someone that is very much an AI entrepreneur, a self-professed “tech boy”, and just barely a writer. I promise you it’s far from the strangest thing about me, but it is important context for the real story here.

Enter Gary Marcus.

I could write pages on Gary Marcus, and I suspect that one day someone will write a book about the unique cultural position he holds in the AI space. I think Hemingway might describe him as: Controversial skeptic. Mostly correct.

On May 30th he posted this AI-inspired rendition of Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation …

spending hours upon hours

having fun with DALL-E

and taking things “step by step”

instead of figuring how we might get

to artificial intelligence

that we could actually trust

How dare he mangle my favorite poem? My still Beat-addled mind immediately recognized the meter was all off.

One part of my mind was scandalized. Howl is immaculate! How could someone touch those holy words! It’s so challenging to link that meter and get that rhythm and… And it’s profane!

Gary took my snarky protests in good humor, and challenged me to better. At that point the other part of my mind knew that I had to try.

So began a spirited collaboration, and to the best of my knowledge, the first AI Poetry Slam.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by GAN bliss, DALL-E faux miracles surround,

whirring themselves through GPU chips at dawn looking for intelligence,

Academic hucksters burning for the true platonic computation to build real intelligence with the machinery of night,

who privileged and funded and rosy-eyed and strong sat up building in the preternatural darkness of San Francisco hearing nothing but siren songs of infinite progress,

8 lines later, as he and I were going back and forth I realized two things:

  1. The intersection of AI experts and people that love Howl is a small group, but it is good company. Through our impromptu poetry fest Gary and I quickly became friends and have had some truly delightful interactions, both with each other and the broader twitter community.

  2. AI poetry is dangerously addictive. After doing Howl I asked him for more. Ever since, every few days, we’ve been going back and forth on new songs and poems.

Song of Witches in Macbeth:

Backprop, backprop truth and error;

'puter whir and SATA buffer.

Text-to-image diffusion,

On GPU profusion;

Mean batch norm and attention,

Embeddings, cursed dimensions,

Momentum and energy,

Contrastive cross-entropy,

Here’s the original for comparison:

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the caldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,

Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,

Soonthe LaMDA news started to circle around and Gary Marcus urged me to realize the connection between LaMDA and Bamba. It was an excellent excuse to get better acquainted with Ritchie Valens and we put together this homage to La Bamba:

A LaMDA (to the tune of La Bamba)

Para burlar a LaMDA

Para burlar a LaMDA

Se necesita algo de perspicacia

Algo de perspicacia

De mi, de ti, arriba, y arriba

y arriba, y arriba

pruebas traeré, pruebas traeré, pruebas traeré

Critically, my ability in Spanish is limited to what you’d expect from someone that grew up in Los Angeles and very nearly knows how to use a dictionary. Many thanks to the philosopher Felipe De Brigard and others for helping us put together the dance music for the next Neurips conference. (To be clear, this is a joke. Dancing is obviously not allowed at Neurips.)

Finally after some back and forth and hunting through our spotify playlists we decided that Taylor Swift would make the perfect capstone for our first poetry slam. In a strange twist of fate, it turns out that Shake It Off is basically a documentary on AI research. Frankly we only needed to change a handful of lines to make the whole thing about AI, but we decided to push it a little further.

Scale It Up (to the tune of Shake it Off)

I make dumb mistakes

Got nothing in my brain

That’s what people say

That’s what people say

I have got so many weights

Do things I can’t explain

At least that’s what people say

that’s what people say

And so closed the first AI Poetry Slam. If folks are interested and the AI community keeps coming up with catchy model names it won’t be the last. The full collection of what we compiled so far can be found at Garymarcus.substack.con at this blog post.

And it’s been a blast; It has been a long, long time since I had this much fun on the internet. I don’t want to belabor an already long post by dissecting all of the cloaked and not-so-cloaked messages about AI running through these songs and poems, but I think that’s half the point.

To me, these songs and poems show the real power of fiction. Complex subjects become approachable. The most profound pieces of these parodies are the parts we did not change. I think there’s something very profound about the fact that a random line of Shakespeare or Taylor Swift or The Beatles (spoiler alert!) can say something true about AI in the modern age.

So now, having felt vibrations across decades pouring into my person cultural manifestation, I look back at Campbell’s words:

“[M]yth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”

And I have to say, in the terseness of Hemingway:

Controversial statement. Mostly correct.

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