“I am the world’s first ultra-realistic artist-robot”, says Ai-Da, when asked to describe herself. “I draw, using cameras in my eyes and my robotic arm,” she says. Ai-Da also writes poetry. Indeed, she recently performed a poem to mark the 700th anniversary of the great Italian poet Dante’s death. She was given Dante’s epic narrative poem the Divine Comedy as a source, and using her algorithms and databank of words and speech patterns, created her own work.
So have we reached the point where robots are about to take over the world of writing? The answer is neither a categoric no, nor a simple yes, but somewhere far more indistinct and interesting in-between.
To write her poem, Ai-Da had human help. And I’m not talking about the humans who wrote her algorithms. According to Aidan Meller, Creative Director of the Ai-Da Robot Project, “restricted editing” also plays a part in the creation of her final poetry. “She can give us 20,000 words in 10 seconds,” he says. “And if we need to get her to say something short and snappy, we would pick it out from what she’s done.” So it’s a collaborative effort between human and machine, which to me points the way to the best form of future. One where artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence (“Hi”) happily co-create for a common good.
I’m not saying that’s easy – far from it. As Ai-Da puts it in her poem honouring Dante, “There are some things, that are so difficult – so incalculable…” But difficult isn’t impossible, especially when it is so desirable. Living not just well but better with AI – this is the big challenge and opportunity of our age. An epic challenge and opportunity worthy of great poetry.
So as we head towards the new year, let’s welcome Ai-Da, her editors and the many more robot-artists no doubt yet to come – and encourage them all to write their best for everyone.
From aguaje to zaperoco…
Popping into a charity shop the other day, I purchased for just 99p The Criollo Way:
Between its sunny covers you’ll find a selection of the finest Venezuelan slang – from ‘Aguaje’ (“rarely heard in its literal sense of the wake of a vessel in water but very common in figurative use to mean worthless talk, hot air, blarney”) to ‘Zaperoco’ (“a commotion, riot or tumult”). But it doesn’t stop there. The Criollo Way also shares local proverbs, like ‘Cada pulpero alaba su queso’ (‘Every storekeeper praises his own cheese’), and similes, such as ‘Más fastidioso que una piña bajo el brazo’ (‘More irritating than carrying a pineapple under one’s arm’).
As this delightful guide demonstrates, lovable language knows no boundaries.
Made up words…
“Yes, my words are made up – but then, all words are made up. Every single one. That’s part of their magic,” says John Koenig, author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
His Dictionary takes on the task of finding words for feelings which, until now, have not been pinned down. Words like ‘nighthawk’ – “a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at night”. ‘Gnasche’ – the intense desire to bite into the forearm of someone you love. ‘Witherwill’ – the longing to be free of responsibility. And his big hit, ‘sonder’ – “the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”.
In so doing, he joins that mighty fine tradition of making up new words for the English language – from Shakespeare through to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. As John Koenig says, “The English language is a magnificent sponge.” Indeed, the degree to which English happily opens its arms to neologisms is one of the things that helps make it so enduring and enjoyable.
So here’s to my lovable mother tongue, and the people who continue to enrich it.
Take this book…
‘I came across a magazine with an inscription that said: “Civilisation flourishes when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit.” But to me it’s not only plants – putting something in somebody’s life, a young person’s life, is the same as planting a tree that you will not cut and sell during your lifetime. That has helped me a lot in my work. Sometimes the more you give, the more you get.’
So says James Barnor, on the wall at the start of his arresting Accra/London retrospective. Indeed, looking at this master photographer’s work, you can see that he gives a great deal of himself to get images that really let the personalities of his subjects shine through.
Walking homewards from the exhibition through Hyde Park, in one of those happy moments of timely connection, I came across a tree bearing books for people to freely pick:
These particular offerings are part of a wider network of sharing, courtesy of The Book Fairies. “Take this book, read it & leave it for the next person to enjoy” says the sticker on each one.
Civilisation does indeed flourish when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit – and when people plant books on trees for the world to enjoy.
The one who tells the story…
There’s a Native American proverb that says “The one who tells the story rules the world”, says psychologist Dr Zoe Walkington in a brilliant BBC feature on the power of stories not only to influence or persuade us, but literally to change our minds.
People who read a couple of chapters of a story about vampires genuinely believe that their teeth are slightly longer than other people in the population. But it doesn’t stop there – if, for example, you read the word “jump”, you fire up the areas of your brain that are activated when you actually do jump.
Just goes to underline how potent stories are, and how important it is to tell your key stories as well as possible.
Back in the late 1990s, cheeky smoothies start-up Innocent Drinks revolutionised on-pack communication with the simply brilliant step of bringing their true character to life on the bottles and cartons destined to end up in consumers’ hands:
Rather than just contain the product or carry the logo or convey the smallprint, Innocent’s packaging sung the personality from the rooftops (and supermarket aisles). These days, characterful on-pack communication is pretty much the new norm. Take for example, “Wow no cow!” milk-alternative Oatly:
These days too, as Oatly demonstrates, there is an increasing on-pack appetite to communicate not just personality but responsibility, in line with the global sustainability megatrend.
For me, the standout company here is Oddbox. A Certified B Corporation, Oddbox regularly delivers to my door a box full of fresh fruit and veg “rescued from going to waste”. Oddbox’s boxes live and breathe their purpose and personality, summed up in their mantra “Eat Good. Do Good. Stay Odd.”:
And what’s inside the boxes is pretty good, too:
Keep it fuzzy…
In her FT article exploring the need for a second kind of AI – anthropology intelligence, in addition to artificial intelligence – Gillian Tett introduced me to the wonderful term “fuzzies”.
Coined to describe the folk with qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, analyses, fuzzies play a critical role in helping to humanise our increasingly data-driven, machine-determined world. Fuzzies temper techies’ often-too-narrow models and methodologies. They are vinyl records in a world of CDs and MP3s. With the former, you get sonic range and variability through warm, continuous waves of analogue sound (together with the odd pop and crackle). With the latter, you’re reduced to the cold precision of clinically sliced digital ones and zeroes.
Of course, just as many of us have both records and CDs in our music collections, so fuzzies and techies can complement each other in reaching decisions that are both emotionally and rationally more rounded and robust. Gillian Tett tells how the Internet Engineering Technical Forum likes to use collective humming to sense the mood of the entire group, rather than rely on simple, binary “yes-no” votes. The fuzzy, quintessentially human hum carries much more information than say, a simple show of hands.
Inspired by hard-core techies who are happy to hum, let’s all look for ways to keep it fuzzy.
Let your pen run on…
Long before Jamie Oliver gave the world his 15-Minute Meals, back in 1948 Edouard de Pomiane published Cooking in 10 Minutes:
I happily picked up this delightful book for next to nothing in a local charity shop and found not only some super-quick meals to make, but also an appropriately bright and breezy writing style.
Edouard sets the tone brilliantly at the outset. No writer’s block for him: “My fountain pen is full of ink; I have fresh sheets of paper before me. I love my book because I am writing it for you. I feel that I need only let my pen run on and I shall make myself clear…”
And so he does – sharing a great array of easy-speedy recipes. My favourite?
MUSSELS WITH SAFFRON:
“Cook two pounds of mussels. Put them on one side. Warm their water with an ounce of butter and a little saffron. Thicken with 100 grammes of thick cream mixed with a teaspoonful of flour. Serve the mussels with the sauce separately in a sauceboat. This is a feast.”
Indeed it is, especially when you add a touch of wine to the water. (And a glass while you cook.) Enjoy, and let your pen run on.
Writing in the FT on the “guff” “surrounding stock markets at the moment”, Merryn Somerset Webb says “it feels as though we have reached a point in the market cycle where everyone is preferring stories to reality.”
Yet as Yuval Noah Harari points out in his seminal Sapiens, we are an essentially storytelling species. Stories are our reality.
That’s not to say that there is only ever just one story for any given event. There are many angles; many stories. Take, as Merryn Somerset Webb does, the recent far from stellar stock market debut of food delivery firm Deliveroo. Why did the shares end their first day of trading 26 per cent down? One storyline focuses on Deliveroo’s dual share structure – standard practice for tech IPOs in the US, relatively new and offputting in the UK. Another highlights environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns surrounding the gig-workers at the heart of Deliveroo’s business. My money is on Merryn Somerset Webb’s take: “busy bankers at Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan” simply “mispriced the Deliveroo deal”. Either way, it’s a matter of stories.
More than any other means, stories are how we make sense of ourselves and our world – stock markets and all. So rather than question everyone preferring stories, we should encourage everyone to tell more and better stories. Stories that not only make sense but ring true; ones that stand out and stand the test of time.
Tell your truth beautifully…
“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations… They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries…” So begins the only known recording of Virginia Woolf, who goes on to explore why it is so difficult “to create beauty… to tell the truth…” with the “half-a-million words all in alphabetical order” at our disposal.
Easy or not, and our current culture’s love of image notwithstanding, words are arguably our primary tool for telling the truth and creating beauty (ideally at the same time). As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “Humans have a special power to connect with and regulate each other: words. In my research lab, we run experiments to demonstrate this power of words. Our participants lie still in a brain scanner and listen to evocative descriptions of different situations. One is about walking into your childhood home and being smothered in hugs and smiles. Another is about awakening to your buzzing alarm clock and finding a sweet note from your significant other. As they listen, we see increased activity in brain regions that control heart rate, breathing, metabolism and the immune system. Yes, the same brain regions that process language also help to run your body budget. Words have power over your biology – your brain wiring guarantees it.”
Given the undoubted power of words, what can we do to up our chances of using them wisely and well? Virginia Woolf has some good advice at the end of her talk: “words…like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them…they like us to pause…”
So the next time you have to use one or more of those half-a-million plus wonderful words in our lovable language, take a moment. Listen for the echoes. Look for the associations. Think about what you feel. Do your best to tell your truth beautifully.
Show feelings effectively…
Picture the scene: our hero walks down the road. Hang on a minute – ‘walks’? That’s not much help. Howabout ‘trudges’, or ‘skips’, or ‘saunters’, or ‘slouches’, or ‘rushes’, or ‘ambles’, or ‘totters’, or ‘strolls’ down the road. To tell a vivid story, choose your verbs with care.
As my daughter’s English teacher puts it so well: “Verbs show feelings effectively.” In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte drives the point home with the help of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” And in so doing, they take us with them.
For economy of style and poetic punch, verbs are your best friends. So if you want to add colour, sense, meaning and emotion to your story, resist the temptation to add adjectives or adverbs. Simply be precise with your verbs. And if you think this might be a tad limiting, take heart in knowing that there are well over 30,000 verbs in the English language. More than enough to play with. Enjoy!
The sound I saw…
Conceived, designed, written and made by hand by master photographer Roy Decarava, The Sound I Saw brings words and images together brilliantly to tell its story. As Roy says in the introduction, “This is a book about people, about jazz, and about things… It represents pictures and words from one head and one heart.”
What a head; what a heart. And what a hand and eye:
Through big arresting black & white images, Roy weaves words in carefully crafted lines, rather than unthinking blocks of text. Lines are broken here, indented there, always in service of the story Roy wants to tell. It’s what the great information artist Edward Tufte calls content-responsive typography in his latest book Seeing With Fresh Eyes. In this way, Roy amplifies the meaning and melody running through The Sound I Saw.
Inspired by Roy and Edward and in lieu of a new year’s resolution, here’s a new year’s tip:
write with your eyes and ears.