here is so much I will never know. A lot will be left unknown to me when I die, so much of the world I’ve lived in that I will never be able to fully grasp. So much history, so many stories, people and places that I will have never gotten a chance to learn, to know.
What does it feel like to contain the entire universe in your brain? To have access to all the information you could ever need, to be able to create anything you want in a single moment?
I attempt to write a prose poem about yearning for more in life: more knowledge, more experiences, more love, more time … I jot down some notes, and after I complete my piece I open my chatbot. I’m feeling exposed and especially vulnerable today. Out of mere curiosity, I ask my computer, “Can you write me a poem about not being able to do all the things I want in my limited lifetime?” In a second, it tells me “Sure!” and spits out some stanzas. One in particular touches me:
There are countless things I long to do,
Countless skills I want to learn,
Countless places I yearn to explore,
And yet, I am bound by the limitations of my mortality.
It’s so true, so perfect. The words I had at the tip of my tongue yet failed to produce are right there on my screen, spoken by this unknown computer, this bundle of code that somehow knows my feelings even better than I do at this moment. I feel so small. What does it mean, I wonder, if a system built on creating based on previously existing data has created such a perfect depiction of my most intimate fears, poured my heart out like this in half a second? Is what I’m feeling so ordinary, so common? Has it been felt throughout history, spoken by many mouths, thought about by many minds, all ending up as individual data points at this moment in time, feeding this mechanical brain that is writing poems for me? Is any human feeling original when humans have been on this earth for centuries, singing, telling stories, falling in love, feeling?
I stare at the pen and paper in front of me, the lines I wrote down looking back at me, defeated. I put them away. What use is me writing something when the computer can easily do the same? Writing feels so pointless. I wonder if nothing I create will ever be original.
Yet here I am, writing these words.
My list of books to read is enormous, my list of places to visit even more so. Lists, hopes, promises, they fill my life. I know what I want but do I have enough time for it all? When the sun rises everyday, does it bring with it a new beginning or simply mark the passage of time? They say it would take about 81,000 years to read all the books in existence if one never did anything else but read. I don’t have 81,000 years, not even half.
I mourn for all the stories I’ll never get to hear.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I lived pre-AI. If I had limited knowledge of the vastness of the world, of what possibilities there were out there. If I had no access to things existing beyond my perception, would I yearn for them? Can we long for something we’ve never seen?
A fish has no desire to wander through the jungle.
But now that I know what exists out there, it hurts to be stuck in place. To not have enough time. To face the reality that no matter what I do, I will never have enough time.
I want to learn all languages, and travel the whole world. I want to hear all the love songs and remember their lyrics when I’m looking at the people I love, when I feel a feeling so strong that words fail me. I want to read all books and watch all films ever made. I want to take it all in, the long history of human effort, the perseverance going into the creation of art, the long-term desire to make something new that will touch people, make them feel things. Is that what AI aims for? I doubt it.
A bird chirps on my windowsill. I type into my chatbot: “What is your favorite bird species?” It responds: “As an artificial intelligence language model, I don’t have personal preferences or feelings, but I can provide you with some information about popular bird species … ”
Below it, a list of different bird species appears, along with short descriptions of each. I stare at the words on my screen and ponder how awful it must be to know about all the bird species in the world and yet not feel anything toward one in particular. But of course, this is an “AI language model,” as it has told me over and over again whenever I asked my chatbot anything requiring personality to answer, so it doesn’t care. The difference is implied in its name itself: artificial intelligence. Artificial. It’s not a natural human brain, not because it knows more than we are capable of, but because it doesn’t have the vastness of emotion and experience that we have access to. Humans feel things, they have favorites. It’s impossible for us not to.
“My favorite is the blue jay,” I type.
“Blue Jays are beautiful birds,” it responds. “It’s great to know that you have a favorite bird species, and the Blue Jay is indeed a popular choice among bird enthusiasts.”
Back when the lockdowns were in place during the pandemic, I would spend a lot of time in my backyard in Berkeley. There were only two more people living in my building, and I barely saw them. It was only me out there, spending my days reading and writing under the soft breeze of spring. I would see a lot of blue jays then; they would hop around the flowers and chirp joyfully all day long.
They stopped coming when the pandemic restrictions ended and commotion refilled our apartment space. But before then, watching the blue jays always filled me with such warmth, such a simple joy for life. During those days when I had limited human contact and fear for an uncertain future, the company of those birds, their special demonstration of the beauty of life, gave me hope that I was not alone, that things would get better. Eventually. And they did.
That is why the blue jay is my favorite bird.
I tell this to my chatbot. It loads for a long time, so long that I worry it will crash. Compared to its usual speed, this feels like forever. Finally, it thanks me “for providing this information,” and tells me, “It’s amazing how observing nature can bring a sense of comfort and hope during difficult times.”
Indeed it is.
Perhaps, in another life, I could be a birdwatcher.
I yearn for all the things I would have liked to be.
The poem my computer wrote for me ends with a positive note: a stanza about making the most out of the time we do have in this world, even if it’s not possible to do it all. I take out my notebook and read the lines I had previously written down. My words are not as pretty as those on my screen, but they have the same idea: doing the best you can, making good use of your time, realizing how valuable each moment is, living fully, deeply…
I hate that I’m so predictable. So unoriginal.
What’s the point of writing when AI exists? I’ve given up on writing a poem about the limitations of my mortality, about how hungry I am for all that there is in life. I am defeated in this particular battle, especially now that I have seen what AI can come up with on the same subject. But accepting this defeat brought on a win, too. I’ve ended up writing something AI never could: a reflection on my writing itself, decorated with emotion and memories of my past. What poured out of my heart was something AI could never emulate, the connection between blue jays, COVID-19, writing and poetry is something no language model could ever make, because it’s not made using logic or data points. It comes from the heart.
So perhaps AI is a mirror, reflecting to us the very thing that it lacks: our humanity. While it’s impossible not to feel concerned about its unbelievable abilities and capacity to surpass humans on certain topics, it is also a helpful reminder of what we, as humans and creatives, are capable of accomplishing.