we going to do about AI? I first heard something about it years ago from a
friend who had trained as an engineer. He designed a warehouse which no one
would need to enter. If, say, the warehouse was attached to a baked bean
factory, then, every time a tin of beans was bought in a supermarket, it would
register on some computer which would eventually realize that the supermarket
needed a fresh supply of baked beans.
machines in the warehouse would move like humans, or almost like them, turning
left and right, reaching up the higher shelves and then carrying the
merchandise back to a waiting truck.
warehouse would be a box of disrupted silences, silences broken by whizzing and
whirring as a new order for beans came in and went out.
course, the whole thing broke down. Then, it needed human intervention. But,
otherwise, it was solid, fully operational. It was also a dream-space, a
dimly-lit stealthy kind of limbo.
ago, I began to get packages from my Spanish publisher. Each package contained
copies of the same book, a thriller in Spanish that I had not ordered and knew
nothing about. Obviously, the computer system in Spain had my address and
something had got snarled. For about five years, copies of this book came
regularly. I suppose the book had been ordered by various bookshops. What was
interesting was that all my efforts to stop the book coming were met with
puzzlement and silence. The Spanish publishing house could find no evidence
that this book was going to the wrong address. More packages with the book
came, and then more. Only recently have deliveries ceased. They stopped, I
think, of their own accord.
that is how the world will stop, when the time comes.
meantime, what will the world be like when AI takes over? Photos that were
never taken will appear as if they were real; videos that were never filmed
will be shown; opinions based on nothing will be current; feelings that were
never felt will be shared.
is hardly the future. This is what is happening now. It just feels like the
be able to tell that the headline in the newspaper describes something that
actually happened or something that must have happened or should have happened?
Who will be there to stop one solitary car going backwards for no apparent
reason? Are there rats in the basement, or did the word ‘rats’, or worse,
something made to resemble a rat, come up through the sewers?
say where this will end?
all this, there is the self, the person, the life within, the nexus of nerves,
sensations and brain cells, that we (or maybe just I) believe is private,
autonomous, unready to be bullied by any machine.
imagine a lone figure reading by lamplight in the corner of a room, perhaps
someone created by the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, as translated by Derek
Mahon. It is night. The night is not a social construct, nor is it artificial.
It is not subject to market forces or snarls in the system. Is it possible for
that figure to inhabit the night more sonorously, more truthfully, more
objectively, now that artificial intelligence is coming towards us, surrounding
us, menacing our days?
will we need to preserve our freedom, the freedom to look at the world as
though nothing significant lies between us and what we see, or indeed what we
section of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’ that deals with
a figure called ‘the blue woman’:
‘It was enough for her that she remembered.
The blue woman looked and from her window named
The corals of the dogwood, cold and clear,
Cold, coldly delineating, being real,
Clear and, except for the eye, without
moment of contemplation, the blue woman, whoever she is, does not need anything
more than what she remembers. But her experience of the world is required to be
cold and real, delineated. Nothing intrudes on nature here, except the human
eye. The blue woman lives without the intrusion of intelligence as something
fabricated, manufactured, distorted.
– I mean fifty years ago! – RTE television had a series called ‘The Twilight
Zone’. On one programme, a fellow admitted, to the consternation of others,
that he ‘had built a man’. I remember asking about that and being told that it
was utterly impossible, you couldn’t build a man. Still, I used to like the
phrase: ‘He built a man.’ I think I like it less now.
the reasons why you couldn’t have robots, built men and women, wandering freely
on a factory floor was that they could turn on humans and mangle them, crush
them like packaging. Now, they know the difference between metal and flesh;
they don’t need to be held in a cage.
is a thing called ‘chat.openai.com’. I asked it to give me a sample passage
that captures my own writing style. I got this:
‘The room was cloaked in a hushed silence, as
if the air itself held its breath. The soft glow of the candlelight danced upon
the walls, casting elongated shadows that seemed to whisper secrets. In the
corner, a worn armchair stood sentinel, its faded fabric offering solace to the
weary. The sound of distant footsteps echoed through the hallway, a haunting
reminder of the world beyond these walls. In this space of quiet introspection,
time seemed to stand still, each moment suspended in its own delicate grace.
Collected thoughts found refuge here, entwining with the flickering embers of
a bad day, I might have written that first sentence. I am sure I have used
‘hushed silence’ at some point along the way, but I am less sure about
‘cloaked’. And, unfortunately, I am pretty certain I did use ‘as if the air
itself held its breath’ in ‘The Testament of Mary’. I am also sure, however,
that I would never use ‘danced’ in the next sentence, but the rest…oh dear!...I
admit I am capable of some of the rest. The sentence, the one that begins ‘The
sound of distant footsteps…’ is me at my worst. (I must stop writing like
that.) So, too, the second last sentence. For the last sentence, I plead
not-guilty. I didn’t write it. I would never have written it.
paragraph I have quoted did not take long to produce. It appeared a few seconds
after I asked for it. Since it could do this, and so quickly, why could it not
do more? Would it, for example, let me talk to it, tell it that a plain
sentence might be useful sometimes and that embers don’t ‘flicker’, not really,
and not in a good piece of writing. ‘Collected thoughts, forgotten dreams.’ Is
this machine laughing at me? Is there anything I can do in retaliation?
June 2010, I went to a conference in Amsterdam to discuss the future under the
auspices of the Nexus Institut. ‘What’s Next for the West?’ was the official
Among the invitees was the
American pianist Russell Sherman who was born in 1930. He seemed like a serious,
thoughtful kind of man.
I was sitting close enough to him during
one of the debates to see him clearly and to catch his eye a few times. The
future was being calmly explained to us by a mild-looking Swedish philosopher
called Nick Bostrom whom I have just looked up on Wikipedia: ‘Nick Bostrom (/ˈbɒstrəm/ BOST-rəm; Swedish: Niklas Boström [ˈnɪ̌kːlas
ˈbûːstrœm]; born 10 March 1973) is
a Swedish philosopher at
the University of Oxford known
for his work on existential
risk, the anthropic principle, human enhancement ethics, whole brain emulation, superintelligence risks,
and the reversal test.’
third paragraph of his entry reads: ‘Bostrom believes that superintelligence,
which he defines as "any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive
performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest," is a
potential outcome of advances in artificial intelligence.
He views the rise of superintelligence as potentially highly dangerous to
humans, but nonetheless rejects the idea that humans are powerless to stop its
negative effects.[failed verification] In
2017, he co-signed a list of 23 principles that all A.I. development should
the stage in 2010, he was rational and calm as he explained how advanced
genetic science had become. If you wanted a tall child, he said, then you could
probably have one. I thought this was funny. But then we went on to say that if
you wanted a child with musical talent, then you could also have the genetic
material worked on for this end.
was when I caught Russell Sherman’s eye. He was shaking his head at the idea
that you could make a musician in a test-tube, or that musical talent could
somehow be engineered. In 2010, I shared the view that artists could not be
created in this way, nor writers either. Many people had talent as writers, but
the thing itself – the ability to produce a finished book that might matter to
others - came from a funny mixture of sensibility and mystery and need. Why do
you begin a book, a story, a poem? Why work so intensely to complete what you
have begun? The impulse often came from hurt, some hurt, something unresolved,
some stirrings of excitement, but that is not enough just as the need to
publish is not enough. Nothing is enough!
the time I didn’t know the joke that the pianist Vladimir Horowitz made when he
said that there were three kinds of pianists: ‘Jewish pianists, homosexual
pianists, and bad pianists.’ It might have helped as I tried to formulate how a
serious musician emerges in the world.
joke is good, but it is not good enough. It really is not sufficient to be from
a certain culture: being a great musician needs something else, something that
cannot be taught and cannot be defined and cannot be inherited.
is deeply bound up with an idea of the self, the inner dark workings of…of
was going to write the soul.
the end of the debate that day, Sherman played one of the late Beethoven piano
sonatas to a hushed house. He made clear that his technical skill was one
thing, but what was on display more was a complex interiority, a spiritual
element that sought refuge in these notes and the silence between them. His
playing was a rebuke to anyone who might say that you can engineer a musician.
no matter how moving the music was, how meditative his playing, the music was
played by a pair of agile hands. It was the body that played the music, not the
Houston Texas a few years ago I found myself sitting beside an old heart
surgeon. As the night wore on, and he seemed receptive to these kinds of
questions, I asked him, since he had opened so many chests, if he had ever
caught a glimpse of the soul. Did the soul flit into hiding as soon as he
appeared with his scalpel? Did he see its complex shadow even for one second?
he said drily, there is no soul; there is just the heart, the pumping heart,
and all the organs around it. I can work with the heart, he said, but don’t ask
me to work with the soul.
body is wide open for a takeover. If all we are is a body, then in a room
somewhere a scientist is improving on ways to replicate the body, from the
heart to the brain, from the nervous system to memory and desire.
matter what they do, however, I will go on believing that I can write a novel
better than they can. The problem is that I could be wrong. Perhaps that
admission, in itself, is a way to approach novel-writing. My double, my
machine, is always right, until they break down. I will break down too, but I
will usually be wrong, or somewhat wrong. Maybe there is some relief in that
Colm Tóibín (May 2023)