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This poem is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Love and Data
O Brave New World, That Has Such Data In’t
(Love and Self-Understanding in an Algorithmic Age)
Judith Bishop
To keep a diary is to court externality. The world enters our bodies as event and perception. In writing a diary we grasp what happened to us, through emotion, thought and memory, and give those inner blooms an external existence on the page. Yesterday’s encounter with a stranger re-emerges in ink: but focused, considered, in some way understood.

Diaries and the new generations of biometric monitor share unlikely kinship. Both read the mind’s movements; both take the heart’s temperature. Children – girls especially – are encouraged to chronicle their days in a journal. Some entries are addressed to the diary itself, as if self-revelation were a dialogue with the mute page. Experience is made to speak. The child listens to herself.

Hand the child a calculator, and we may take away her need, perhaps even her desire, to walk a mental path through the queer, abstract forest of numerical symbols. 3 x 4 = 12 becomes an operation for the fingers alone, a simple task of data entry. The computation is carried out by the machine. In days to come, we may give the child a biometric monitor – they come in child sizes – and let her grow up with it. But will we change how she interprets the racing of her heart? For she may choose to push a button to read her state of mind, to tell her what it is she feels.

When I speak with you, I speak with a world; I speak with an ecology. Within that space of recognition, talking together is as sensual an experience as venturing into places one’s never been before: an undiscovered country, and a deeply human country.

When we talk with an artificial intelligence in the not-too-distant future, we may discover new realms beyond the human – new cognitive and even emotional places, made possible by maths and abstraction. We may forget that the voice was first compiled from a panoply of once-recorded humanness: the externalised, discretised, digitised, optimised expressions of the living.

A machine may be changed by its interaction with us – by definition, machine learning learns by processing – but what it takes from us is data, not experience. The complex of emotion, perception, memory and thought that we know as ‘experience’ remains, for now, the preserve of those living in the flesh. The intertwining of two people in an intimate dialogue is a coupling of experience with experience to make a greater than.

Discretisation, optimisation and control: the world of AI is a mathematician’s delight. Take a stream of information with an undetermined number of attributes, mirroring the rich sensory modes of our perception. AI applies a complex analysis to the stream. It comes up with a set of factors that can each be controlled – that is, turned on or off – based on the optimal ‘weight’, or ‘cost’, of each on/off decision.

Such a system generates responses to the states and situations it detects. It’s something human beings are doing every moment of our lives, whether talking to each other, having sex or feeding the cat. Subconsciously or otherwise, we monitor the developing states of our own and others’ activity and emotion. The cat rubs herself against my legs: I decide, from past experience, that she is expressing hunger, and I reach for her food. You make a pleasured noise at a certain point in love-making: your partner infers that you are enjoying what is happening, and decides to continue with the touching. Decisions such as these have become the target of algorithms.

Human decisions are markers, nodes, turning points in the flow of our experience and energy. They are the culmination of a unique series of paths your mind and body took in space and time. Those paths can be imagined as a river delta, whose sources range from genetic material, ancient and more recent, to physical and emotional experiences accumulated from birth to the present day, through to yesterday’s encounter with a person for whom you felt a certain affinity: something, perhaps, about the way she smiled.

All decision points are a confluence of sources. But where those sources converge in a decision, instead of flowing out to an indefinite sea, another source begins, another delta starts to form: the inception of a future decision.

Between decision points, existence happens, and experience. The old adage that the journey is much more than its ending was cogently expressed by Constantine Cavafy in his poem ‘Ithaka’ (Edmund Keeley translates):

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

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