A New Age of Artifice

January 23, 2017 § 5 Comments

In the fall of 2011, Duke University’s undergraduate literary journal published a rather unassuming poem entitled “For the Bristlecone Snag” (“The Archive”). To the journal’s poetry editors, the poem appeared to be a typical undergraduate work, comprised of several unfulfilled metaphors and awkward turns of phrase. What the editors did not know at the time of publication, however, was that this poem was not written by a human. Instead, it was written by a computer program (Merchant).

When I first learned about “For the Bristlecone Snag”, I was reminded of the writings of Alan Turing, a renowned English computer scientist in the mid 20th century. In his seminal article on the subject of artificial intelligence (A.I.), Turing articulates that the question, “can machines think?”, is “too meaningless to deserve discussion” (Turing 442). After all, he claims, we have no direct evidence that other humans can think, and we merely assume that they do based on their behavior. Turing argues that this “polite convention that everyone thinks” should apply to all beings that can demonstrate human behavior (Turing 446). It is from this line of thought that Turing conceptualized the Turing Test, an experiment in which a computer tries to convince a human of its humanity. According to Turing, if an A.I. can convince a human judge that it is human, then we must assume that the A.I. can think.

While the program that produced “For the Bristlecone Snag” did not complete an extensive and proper Turing Test, it did convince human judges that it was human. At the very least, the poem’s acceptance into an undergraduate literary journal reveals that literate machines can, and will, exist in the near future. The way is paved for more professional and accomplished artificial authors.

Indeed, even in the half decade since “For the Bristlecone Snag” was published, the technology behind artificial intelligence has improved rapidly. Watson, IBM’s “cognitive computing platform”, is a great example of this progress (Captain). In 2011, Watson defeated two reigning champions in Jeopardy, successfully interpreting and answering the game show’s questions. While this feat alone was a remarkable step in cognitive computing, Watson’s analytical abilities have since then contributed to over thirty separate industries, including marketing, finance, and medicine (Captain). For example, the machine can read and understand millions of medical research papers in just a matter of minutes (Captain). As intelligent as Watson is, however, he was never designed to pretend to be human. The chief innovation officer at IBM, Bernie Meyerson, believes ‘“it’s not about the damn Turing Test”’; his team is more interested in accomplishing distinctly inhuman tasks, such as big data analysis (Captain).

While IBM may not be interested in the Turing Test, other artificial intelligence companies have been working specifically towards the goal. In 2014, a program by the name of Eugene Goostman passed the Turing Test using machine learning strategies similar to those that drive Watson (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). The chatbot, or program that specializes in human conversation, was able to convince several human judges that it was a thirteen-year-old boy (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). Given the success of Eugene Goostman, and the intelligent accomplishments of Watson, it is indisputable that the Turing Test can be, and has been, passed. Artificial intelligence is a reality. Machines can think.

As an aspiring writer and computer scientist, I can’t help but fixate on the implications that A.I. has for literature. It is entirely possible, even likely, that “For the Bristlecone Snag” foreshadows an era in which the most successful and prolific authors will be machines, an era in which the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature are no longer given to humans, an era in which humanity no longer writes its own stories.

Yet, this era of artifice should not be greeted with worry or anxiety. Art has always been artificial, a constructed medium for human expression. In the coming decades, we will author the next authors, create the new creators, we will mold the hand that holds the brush. Artificial intelligence should not be feared as an end to art, but rather a new medium, a new age of artifice.

– Zach Gospe


Captain, Sean. “Can IBM’s Watson Do It All?” Fast Company. N.p., 05 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

Merchant, Brian. “The Poem That Passed the Turing Test.” Motherboard. N.p., 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

“The Archive, Fall 2011.” Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.<https://issuu.com/dukeupb/docs/thearchive_fall2011>.

Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950,  pp. 433–460. www.jstor.org/stable/2251299.

“TURING TEST SUCCESS MARKS MILESTONE IN COMPUTING HISTORY” University of Reading. N.p., 8 June 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.

This is why I should never be a character in Science Fiction.

November 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

In my opinion, “Entanglement” was one of the most beautiful stories that we read this semester.

The way that Singh wove together the brief snapshots of multiple lives was so satisfying to read. The ending left me with that “A-ha!” moment when I could finally fit all of the individual characters into a larger picture, an overall web of stories. The orange wristlet was such a vital tool that allowed the characters to connect and share their emotions and experiences with one another.

The ending was where my inner child kicked in. At the end of the story, Yuan explains his device to the monk and all I could think about was the questions that I would have asked him if I was there. The dialogue would have gone much differently. (I had to supply my own answers for the sake of the dialogue.)

“So I came up with this device that you wear around your wrist, and it can gauge your emotional level and your mood through your skin. It can also connect you, via your genie, to your computer or mobile device, specifically through the software that I designed.”

“It can gauge your emotional level and your mood through your skin? How does that work? Also, does it matter if your skin is sweaty or not? My wrists can get kind of sweaty when I wear things on them.”

“No…it doesn’t matter if your skin is sweaty. The device detects minuscule changes in pulse and calibrates that to determine your emotional level and mood.”

“Interesting. Actually, I’m one of those people that hates feeling their own pulse. Gives me the creeps. Anyway, tell me more.”

“I designed it at first as a cure for loneliness. I had to invent a theory of loneliness, with measures and quantifiers.”

“That’s…actually really depressing. How do you measure loneliness? Like on a scale from one to ten, one being “Yeah, I kind of want to talk to my friends right now” and ten being “Oh my god, have I really been single for twenty-five years”?

“No, I had to use an operational definition for loneliness and build a theory from there. I won’t go into details. I also had to invent a theory of empathy. The software enables your genie to search the Internet for people who have similar values of certain parameters…and it gauges security and safety as well. When you most need it, based on your emotional profile at the time, the software will link you at random to someone in your circle.”

“Oh my god. Is this like Omegle?”


“Omegle. The chat website that randomly pairs you up with someone. The one that people use for very questionable reasons.”

“No. Well, kind of? I mean, my program is a lot more complicated and is based on pairing people up based on emotional profiles.”

“Hmm. Also, how specific do the emotional profiles get?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, would the device be able to detect the fact that I was so happy about just having watched Toy Story 3 for the first time, but also devastated about how my childhood just ended, but also how I was a bit ashamed at the fact that I cried for a solid ten minutes at the end?”

“I think-”

“Or would the device be able to link me to someone who shares the same love for, and also understands, my strange, guilty pleasure of listening to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”? What a beautiful song.”

“I think it’s a bit more general than that. It’s very buggy. There are people working on it to make it better. The optimal network architecture isn’t in place yet. My dream is that one day it can help us raise our consciousness beyond family and friend, neighborhood and religion, city and country. Throughout my journey I’ve been giving it away to people. In every town and village.”

“Whoa. You’ve just been giving these things away?”

“Yes, why?”

“What are you, made out of money? How much does it cost to make one of these things? Can you really afford to give them away to everyone you meet?”

“They don’t really cost that much to make when we make them in bulk.”

“You’re like Oprah. You get a wrislet! And you get a wristlet! Look under your seats everyone- everyone gets a wristlet!”

“Please stop. I’m connected right now to seven other people, seven strangers. The connection is poor, but sometimes I hear their voices or see them on my notebook screen.”

“Does that not terrify you? I would be so scared if I randomly heard people talking throughout the day.”

“No. It gives me a chance to connect with others. On the way here I stopped at a grassy meadow criss-crossed by streams, a very beautiful place. The reception must have been good because all at once I saw an old woman on my computer screen. She was standing at a kitchen counter feeling like she had nothing to give to the world. So I told her- I didn’t know what to tell her because I felt her pain- but finally I told her something cliched, like a fortune from a fortune cookie. I said, “Something good will happen to you today.” I don’t know if that turned out to be true. I don’t even know who she is, only that she’s from another country and culture and religion, and I felt her pain like it was my own.”

“Wow…that really was cliche. Almost as cliche as ‘A dream you have will come true.'”


“But that was also incredibly beautiful and moving. You can understand and relate to the suffering and pain of another while sharing your own pain with them.”

“Are you…are you crying?”

“…No. My eyes are just a little sweaty today.”



October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Your Majesty, have you had a chance to look through the etiquette handbook that the Kadarowo so kindly sent to us?”

“Hmm..I may have flipped through a couple pages.”

“Your Majesty! We are meeting with the Kadarowoan Prime Minister tomorrow! This is the first time that any species from Mars has agreed to make contact with us. If you offend him, the entire race may just decide to ignore us and do business with the Americans instead!”

“The Americans? Heavens forbid… Alright, just give me some of the key pointers so that I don’t have to read through the entire stupid thing. It’s over five hundred pages long!”

“Very well Your Majesty, we can start with the greeting process first. When meeting a Kadarowo for the first time, you must never look him in the eyes.”

“Well where the hell am I supposed to look?”

“At his seventy-fifth ear Your Majesty, it is considered to be polite.”

“How in the world am I supposed to find his seventy-fifth ear?”

“You count, Your Majesty. Using your eyes.”

“Don’t get snarky with me, Oxford. I will exile you to Russia.”

“My apologies, Your Majesty. Moving on, you greet the Kadarowos by rotating your left foot in a counter-clockwise motion in their direction. When exchanging hellos, you must never speak above a whisper. Their hearing is extremely sensitive because of their three-hundred and twenty nine ears.” “When the Kadarowo has acknowledged your presence, you are allowed to grasp his antennae, located next to the fifty-second ear, as a symbol of shared trust and unity.”

“That sounds…oddly sexual, Oxford.”

“Your Majesty, don’t be ridiculous! This is all common Kadarowoan custom. I am told that their dinner parties last for several days because of the introduction process.”

“All right, let’s just finish this. I have a pizza party to attend to at six o’clock.”

“We may now move on to the sacrificing of the turtle.”

“What the- Why would we sacrifice a freaking turtle?”

“Your Majesty, I see that you have not looked through the handbook at all. The Kadarowos believe that every introduction to someone new is considered to be a blessing from their Goddess, Shakira.”

“Shakira? Isn’t that the sing-”

“The name is merely a coincidence, Your Majesty. They thank Shakira by sacrificing in her name her least favorite animal, the turtle.” “After we sacrifice the turtle, we must paint it’s shell with the colors of the Kadarowoan flag: Cerulean, Razzmatazz, Pewter, and Yellow.”

“I don’t even know what a Razzmatazz is, Oxford.”

“After we have painted the turtle, we may move on to the process of ‘The Fire Dance.'”

“Okay Oxford, you know what? This is ridiculous! We don’t need those Kadarowos and their stupid customs; they’re too different from us. Also, it’s 6:10. There’s probably no cheese pizza left. I have to go, Oxford. ”

“Your Majesty! But the Prime Minister-”

“Goodbye Oxford!”

“Hello Mr. President, this is Oxford. Yes, as we expected, the King believed the “Kadarowoan customs” and has run away. You are now free to continue negotiations with the Kadarowoan people. I expect the money we discussed to be deposited into my bank account by the end of this week.” “It was a pleasure working with you, sir.”


Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice… I hold with those who favor environmental disaster.

October 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

The scenario is not an uncommon one.  It is X years into the future, and the world is about to end.  But how?  Many authors would descibe a “zombie apocolypse,” some with a more scientific approach to a virus or a disease that wipes out the human race; others describe nuclear fallout, a more plausible way we could cause Armageddon since we seem to have the technology to do it; but ultimately some of the most plausible scenarios for the end of the world involve much less violence, at least at first.

The idea of an environmental disaster bringing about apocolypse is found widely in much literature, most noteably in that of science fiction.  The notion is one that fits the genre; the science behind this kind of apocolypse is interesting and easily understood by readers, plausible enough to seem to never invoke the “tooth-fairy” response more than once.  The variety availiable in environmental disasters is also a draw to writers, as who doesn’t want to be able to choose from a wealth of interesting and equally plausible scenarios for their plot?  The plot could focus on crop failure due to the genetic homogeneity  of the plants leading to suceptibility to a single devastating disease; it could highlight a disastrous disruption in the biosphere ecology and subsequently the world economy due to global climate change; the story could be one on the effect of water shortage due to overuse and pollution of the hydrosphere; it could be like that of Gregory Benford’s Timescape and focus on toxic algal blooms due to eutrification caused by agricultural runoff leading to economic disaster and death; or it could focus on one of the many more examples of disaster, all leading to world panic, likely war over resources, and ultimately bringing about a death toll higher than what we have ever seen.

Such plots draw our attention as readers because we know they could easily become real.  Such plots are less fiction to us as they are an omen of the future, and that both terrifies and intrigues us.  Every event named is one that could easily occur in the modern era.  We grow our plants in genetic monocultures, meaning they are basically clones of one another, all grown together in neat rows, ideal for a virus to target the plants and easily be transferred to entire fields overnight.  If one plant has no reistance, none of the plants will have any resistance.  We are dependent upon these monocultures to allow us to make food crops in the amount currently necessary to sustain the population.  If a staple crop such as corn collapsed, it would lead to starvation and the scarcity of resources would ultimately lead to war and death.  Chaos and apocolypse because of one virus.  Global climate change is an issue known and accepted by most, and its effects can be catastrophic.  The overall warming of the Earth’s atmosphere can lead to melting of global ice caps which in turn leads to raised sea levels, submerging coastal cities where much of the world’s population lives.  Further, the global climate change will disrupt the biosphere ecology.  These two issues combined would lead to scarcity of resources, economic disaster, war, and death.  Water shortage is an issue many in the world are already dealing with.  Besides the shortage in California, the Middle East has always dealt with water shortage issues and wars have occured many times for water rights.  We seem to use water like it is an infinite resource, though water is considered a nonrenewable resource in many states of the U.S. Water pollution and overuse around the world has caused many problems already and, especially when combined with any other of the issues mentioned, could contribute to world catastrophe.  Eutrification is an issue in itsself without the neurotoxic blooms being added in.  A normal algal bloom of algae with no neurotoxic effect will still lead to economic disruption due to the death of fish caused by hypoxic conditions created by the spike in algae and their decomposition.  When neurotoxic organisms are added into the mix, blooms become terrifying.  The infamous neurotoxic “red tides” caused by dinoflagellate blooms have occurred throughout history, but with the mass amount of runoff from fertilizers and other chemicals currently occurring the issue of their increasing frequency and severity is a real concern.  The subsequent effect on the world economy and the death tolls that would be associated with a great increase in blooms would be devastating.

The reason why works with these kinds of disasters always hit home is because they are so real, so plausible.  We as a species cause more stress on our environment than any other species combined.  We have created these issues for ourselves, but even when we see these issues in the books we read or movies we watch and recognize them as so plausible and realistic, we hardly change our actions.  We deal with the here and now and do not plan for the future, just as the society in Benford’s novel.  It seems every day we are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole and its harder and harder to get out.  It is not going to be zombies that bring about the end of the world; we are going to kill ourselves.

-Cassie Woolley


Red tide off the coast of La Jolla San Diego, California

Red tide off the coast of La Jolla San Diego, California;”La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780″. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780.jpg#/media/File:La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780.jpg

I’m sorry, what was your name again?

September 11, 2015 § 2 Comments

In my ten-something years as an avid reader and token bookworm, I had never had this experience before.

On the first day of class, I came prepared with an annotated copy of “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov and the seemingly impossible goal of not making a fool of myself in front of other College Scholars. Everything seemed to be going suspiciously well when halfway through the animated discussion, the professor asked, “So what are the characters’ names?”

I was completely bewildered. I had spent 2 hours reading through the story and coming up with exciting points to share with the class and I could not even remember a single character’s name? What had happened? I was sure that I had read the story carefully enough. Eventually, I blamed the story for having character names that were too complicated. (I had to look at the story again. Theremon 762? Sheerin 501? Really?)

And yet this phenomenon happened again and again. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, “By His Bootstraps” by Robert A. Heinlein, “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” by Michael Swanwick. I was sure that this time around, the character names were not difficult to remember and yet, I could not tell you a single character name from any of the stories that I have read so far. (Except for Helen from “Helen O’ Loy,” written by Lester Del Ray, but the name is in the freaking title.)

What was wrong with me? Was I not reading closely enough or carefully enough? Did science fiction just not agree with my brain? I could remember the plots well enough, but why not the characters’ names? (The self deprecating part of my brain whispers “It’s because you’re sttuuuppiiddd.”)

The only thing that gave me a small measure of comfort was the fact that we talked about how Science Fiction, as a genre, relies on stock characters that are flat and archetypal. Often, the focus is on the plot and the ideas, rather than the characters. The way I see it, in most of the stories that we have read so far, the authors have used their characters as hollow vessels, not unlike characters that you would see in video games. The author then uses these vessels to guide us through their meticulously constructed scientific puzzles or tales about time-travel paradoxes. Whether or not the vessel gets filled up with distinguishing personality traits and characteristics is not of utmost importance, which makes it harder to remember and care about the characters. Ultimately, it is the plot that matters.

Of course, not all of Science Fiction is like this. I can still remember the names of the three Wiggin children, Andrew (Ender), Peter, and Valentine, from Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, which I read in middle school. (In fact, my pseudonym, Demosthenes, is a tribute to Valentine’s pseudonym that she used in the novel.) However, I feel that I can remember so many details about these characters because I have grown attached to them. I consider Ender to be a precious baby that needs to be protected. So far, none of the characters in the stories that we have read have been memorable or likable enough for me to remember.

Is this just me? Am I the only one who has trouble remembering character names? (The self deprecating part of my brain whispers again “It’s just you…”)


First Impressions

October 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

1.  There used to be a name for gifted people like Aiko. Tobi ga taka wo umu, or a hawk born from kites.  Only now, everyone can be a hawk.

2.  If you ask for her most treasured memory, she’ll tell you it’s a scent.  Ask her for her favorite story, and she’ll say it’s a song.

3.  Before he left for his expedition from Narita Station, I remember seeing sakura blossoms fall behind him in frail, blushing blankets.  He told me to expect his messages  to arrive from across the intergalactic drift when the streets were covered once more.  This year, the petals were as white as snow. The Federation decided that pink was distasteful.

4.  Julian dragged himself from beneath his blankets as the morning alarm rang incessantly in his bedroom.  As always, he gave a deep shudder as he uploaded himself into his school’s network.  Mondays were the worst.

5.  Harry quickly spit out the meatloaf that the lunch lady had unceremoniously dumped on his tray.  It tasted far too much like an E sharp.

Please enjoy my first lines for the sci-fi stories running through my head.  Which one would you be most inclined to read?

-Angela L.


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