Let’s Teach Robots Poetry

There’s something undeniable about outer space that turns people into poets. Or at least that’s what I hear. I haven’t been there myself. But you take a corn-fed hick from Ohio like Neil Armstrong and throttle him past escape velocity and onto a rock a quarter of a million miles from the Midwest and pretty soon he’ll be saying things like:

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

That’s the Overview Effect, in a nutshell. The radical shift in cognition that comes with visions, both literal and metaphorical, of an Earth very small and very far away. For all his poetry Faulkner was never more beautiful than when we wrote: “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”

And this is important because the Old Guard of space travel is dying out. This year alone we lost Armstrong, Sally Ride, and Ray Bradbury. Surely the others aren’t that far behind. Eugene Cernan is 40 years older than he was when he became the last person to walk on the moon. Buzz Aldrin can’t have that many moon-landing-denier punches left in him. We’re not training their replacements, we’re building them.

Space exploration has turned into a young machine’s game.

This is not necessarily a death knell for those of the species who hope to one day evolve back into stardust; a different approach was inevitable. It’s obviously smarter to send out the machines to do the groundwork. They’re more efficient. They don’t break as easily as people, last much longer, save us money on Tang, and, as Curiosity has proven, are more than capable of refueling our collective anticipation for the future.

And yet it’s not enough. Far from its ignoble origins as a bastard child of the Cold War, the space program was unifying in every sense of the word. It focused on the inner space as much as the outer, on looking back at the planet as much as looking forward. In another beautiful example of the Overview Effect, Bill Anders said, “It’s ironic that we had come to study the moon and it was really discovering Earth.” When we recall our favorite moments of the space age, we don’t go berserk over mineral composition and distribution and clues to past water formations. The stuff that makes us lose our shit are of the distinctly human element: astronauts grinning like loons as they spin around in zero-G, Alan Shepard driving a golf ball “miles and miles and miles,” the global vicarious frisson at Alexey Leonov stepping out of Voskhod 2 for a quick spin in the void. Even the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia, rather than retarding our hopes of continued spaceflight, galvanized them.

These are not things a robot can do. Blame it on our unevolved sense of exclusionary empathy if you must, but no one exactly mourned NASA’s decision to abandon Spirit in a Martian sand trap. Sure, we cheered when Curiosity touched down, but how much of that was conciliatory relief at having achieved some measure of progress post-cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program, and more important, how many more didn’t cheer out of resentment of the fact that it should have been a human?

A human being on Mars reassures us that, one day, more will follow. A human being on Mars makes the prospect of a human being on Europa or Ganymede something more than speculative fiction. To a human being on Mars the Earth would look infinitely smaller than it did to the human beings on the moon. And for now we can only imagine what the Overview Effect would do to a human being that far away from home.

Perhaps we can teach poetry to the next rover or probe or space telescope we boot off the planet. Perhaps instead of simply attaching the Golden Record to the Voyager spacecraft we could have taught it to appreciate the influence of “Johnny B. Goode” on rock and roll. Perhaps we can one day invent an engine of grace that will allow a machine to translate the distances between worlds into the quiet lyrical mania of Carl Sagan or David Mitchell or Spalding Gray.

(The now unfortunately defunct Google Poetry Robot [no affiliation with the actual Google] took a few manually entered words of inspiration and an algorithm collected related words from around the internet to create poetry. Most of its poems were as bad as you might expect: piss-poor grammar, multiple and disjointed languages, and random gibberish resulted in something more akin to Flarf than any actual reflection of self. On occasion, though, the robot came close. While the line “I am sitting here.. I want to become Japan” wouldn’t pass a Turing or Voight-Kampff test, it does sound like something a particularly depressed yet ambitious automaton might come up with. I’m sure each of us has a microwave or mp3 player that once had dreams of being the next Hubble Space Telescope.)

Or, and I’m just spitballing here, perhaps we should just continue the dream that men like Neil Armstrong pioneered, and put a man on Mars already. TC mark

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