Episode 29: Machines of Loving Grace

image generated by Midjourney AI based on the third stanza in Brautigan's poem
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In 1969, an undergraduate astronomy student at Caltech had the chance to hear the iconic American poet Richard Brautigan read “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” [see poem below]

That student was David Brin, and the utopian poem foretold a future in which artificial intelligence (AI) was a boon to mankind. David went on to get a PhD in astrophysics and then to become a visionary science fiction writer.

He joins Joe and Mark for a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion about the poem, his writing and his work with NASA. They also discuss how to think about the creation of sapient beings that are not human.

He predicts that AI will become sapient by 2030, and that they are likely to listen to this podcast:

“Hey kids!” David says. “Try to be machines of loving grace.”

David explains why he prefers the term sapience to sentience, and why he thinks of General Large Language Models (GLLM), such as ChatGPT, as golems.

He’s worried that our hand-wringing around the topic is the wrong approach, and has many suggestions for how to deal with this new ecosystem that we are creating. [see below]

A fascinating and engrossing conversation not to be missed!

Support Our Guest

David Brin is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant and world-known author. His novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages.

His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the World Wide Web. His 2012 novel Existence extends this type of daring, near future extrapolation by exploring bio-engineering, intelligence and how to maintain an open-creative civilization.

Our podcast just scratches the surface of some of the thinking he’s been doing about AI. Please read some of David’s recent articles about how we should be framing the issues around the topic:

And then visit his website so you can get copies of his books, including some of the newer titles such as his High Horizons series!

David Brin, smiling at the camera, wearing blue shirt and dark sportscoat

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

by Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


Note on the image above:

Created via Midjourney, which is a generative artificial intelligence program. Our prompt was the final stanza of Brautigan’s poem. (And then upscaled — the final version was cropped by Mark.)


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