In Dan Power's Memory Foam, a mild-mannered AI offers its view on mortal topics like loneliness and dreams, written using only phrases generated in conversation with ChatGPT. The poems are playful and quietly profound, at turns dispensing almost childlike wisdom alongside an uncanny valley-inducing imitation of human sincerity. In his questioning, Power sees his own beliefs and insecurities shown back to him. The problem with holding a mirror up to a computer, he writes, is that a computer is also a mirror.
Machine learning that helps us structure our lives must next tell us how to live. Memory Foam marks the dawn of a long line of experimentation at the border of poetry and artificial intelligence.
Dan Power is a poet from the West Midlands, currently living in Dundee, and studying for a PhD in creative writing at Lancaster University. His first pamphlet Predictive Text Poems was published by Spam Press in 2016, and a cyber-space graphic novel, Selected Dreams, was published in 2021 by Steel Incisors. Dan is the founding editor of the visual poetry outfit Trickhouse Press. He can usually be found online at @therealdanpower.
ChatGPT is an AI chatbot developed by OpenAI and released in November 2022. It is built on top of OpenAI's GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 foundational large language models (LLMs) and outputs information in a dialogue format, making it possible for ChatGPT to answer follow-up questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.
"Somewhere between psychotherapy and séance, Power has spoken to the ghosts that haunt our digital architecture, and while the results are often funny and absurd, they are much more than that. There are genuinely touching insights to be had from our imprints."
— Liam Bates, author of Human Townsperson
"If Freud once compared the perceptual apparatus of the mind and memory to a Mystic Writing Pad, Dan Power has found a working model in memory foam: a heat-sensitive substance that moulds automatically to human form. In these elliptical missives between AI and speaker, new bonds of ipseity, experience and relation are forged in the intimate encounter of query and confession. Here we have occasional poems, chat dialogues and transcripted screaming. Memory Foam is an innovative technology of material-cognitive reciprocity, profundity in bathos. If we are to make distinctions between ‘hard and soft’ AI, Power finds a dialectical middle ground of foamy intensities where the question of dream and volition belongs to the computer as much as anyone — we were always already having ‘electronic experience[s]’. Throughout, there is a sense that utterance can only be an event, never pure self-expression but a time-blip making possible speech: the deep blue soul at the heart of this book quips lyrical grace at the pattern behaviour of human curiosity. No wonder then, the poems want to know more than we do about the big things: intentionality, secrecy, belief, fear, authenticity. Existentially coquette, artificial intelligence doesn’t so much ‘take over’ the human as roll off its sulky mattress."
— Maria Sledmere, author of Visions & Feed (2022)