Alaska writer and poet Don Rearden has been experimenting with artificial intelligence. He gave it a writing assignment. The result, a Rearden-style poem, both impressed him and freaked him out. Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin talked to him about it.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of what happened when Liz Ruskin and Don Rearden sat down together in a radio studio. Read on to see why the experience was trippier than she expected.
Liz Ruskin: So, Don, you recently participated in an unusual experiment. You submitted some of your poems to an artificial intelligence program that analyzed your style and voice and then generated a new poem in your voice. How did that happen?
Don Rearden: Well, it was a bit of a surprise, actually. I was contacted by a researcher from Microsoft Bing who said they were working on a project to create poems using AI. They asked me if I would be interested in providing some of my poems as input for their program. I was curious and intrigued, so I agreed.
Ruskin: And what did you think of the result? Did the AI capture your voice?
Rearden: Well, it was certainly an interesting experience. The poem that the AI produced was not something that I would have written myself, but it did have some elements of my style and themes. It was kind of surreal to read something that sounded like me but wasn’t me.
Ruskin: Can you share the poem with us?
Rearden: Sure, I have it right here.
The Last Salmon
I remember the last salmon
I caught with my grandfather
On the Kuskokwim river
Before he passed away
He taught me how to gut it
With a sharp knife and steady hand
How to smoke it over alder wood
And store it for the winter
He told me stories of his youth
When the fish were plentiful and fat
When the river was clean and clear
And the people were happy and healthy
He warned me of the changes
That were coming fast and hard
The dams, the mines, the pipelines
The diseases, the drugs, the violence
He said we had to fight for our land
Our culture, our language, our way of life
He said we had to respect the salmon
They were our brothers and sisters
He said we had to remember who we are Where we came from, what we stand for
He said we had to stick together
We were stronger as one
I remember his last words to me
As he handed me his knife and smiled
“Take good care of this salmon, son”
“It might be your last one”
Ruskin: Wow, that’s quite impressive. It does sound like something you would write.
Rearden: Yeah, it does have some similarities with my work. I often write about Alaska and its culture, history and environment.
Ruskin: Do you think AI can be creative?
Rearden: That’s a hard question to answer. I think AI can mimic human creativity to some extent, but I don’t think it can replace it. There is something unique and irreplaceable about human creativity that comes from our emotions, experiences and values. AI can learn from us, but it can’t be us.
Ruskin: Well, thank you for sharing your thoughts and your poem with us, Don. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Rearden: Thank you for having me, Liz. It was a pleasure talking with you too.
Ruskin: And now Don, it’s time for you and I to come clean with the listeners.
Rearden: Yeah, I think it is. Moments before this actual interview, I asked Microsoft Bing to write our interview for us. So we could just, you know, be done and go have coffee or something.
Ruskin: That’s right: This whole conversation – everything in italics – was scripted by Bing. Rearden asked Bing to write an interview between journalist Liz Ruskin and Alaska writer Don Rearden. The questions artificial Liz asked were close to what I intended to ask, so we just read the script Bing wrote for us.
But then we had a real conversation. So here we are just talking, using our own brains.
At least, I thought that’s what we were doing.
Ruskin: Does some part of you worry that Bing is a better writer than you are?
Rearden: It’s probably going to make a lot more money than I’ve ever made at writing. (Laughs) I don’t think so. I think there’s the human part. And I guess what’s a little bit scary about that introductory material that Bing wrote – that part is really how I feel about it, that it can’t replace us. It doesn’t have the heart that we do.
Ruskin: This makes my head hurt: Real Don Rearden is saying AI won’t replace us, but he’s quoting artificial Don, because he thinks AI said it better.
Whether we’re ready or not, our replacements have arrived.