The art of losing isn't hard to master

Poetry and Olympic values.

Winning the UK Olympic bid provided some interesting and irresistible challenges, that I felt poetry should be part of. Our greatest cultural contribution to the world, our language and poetry, needed to be celebrated in 2012, not least in order to create some kind of legacy. Poetry from the ancient world has left us information about the games and its competitors. But in 2012, which poetry should we turn to?

I have spent many months looking for poetry that might resonate with Olympic values. A new poetry anthology, Winning Words, has now been published. Some of the verses reflect sporting qualities like ambition, potently captured by Robert Bly in Watering the Horse: "How strange to think of giving up all ambition! / Suddenly I see with such clear eyes / The white flake of snow / That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!"  Or resolve, with Leonardo Da Vinci’s simple observation from his notebooks: "Obstacles cannot crush me./ Every obstacle yields to stern resolve./ He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind."

But while Olympians can benefit from such a unflinching mindset, it is also worth remembering the Olympics is unusually cruel, offering the highest rewards but only appearing every four years. Many Olympians will only have one opportunity to take part in their career. Many face heartbreak, most will not win medals.

So our poetry collection for 2012 (and beyond) needed to be nuanced, to understand that winners also know what it’s like to lose. Elizabeth Bishop puts it beautifully in One Art: "The art of losing isn’t hard to master." The Medieval Persian poet Hafez offers a tantalising glimpse at consolation that cannot be reached: ‘I wish I could show you / When you are lonely or in darkness, / The Astonishing Light / Of your own Being!"

How should such an anthology be arranged? By date, or theme? I chose to do something else. There are no dates next to the poets’ names or their works, and the timeline darts from ancient to contemporary. This book is intended as a companion to everyday life, and I wanted it to be a source of unpredictable inspirations for readers.

It means, for example, that John Dryden’s Happy the Man can sit opposite Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang. Dryden describes a happiness based on fulfillment, "Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today." As you progress to Sassoon, you discover a completely different type of happiness, an involuntary explosion of it overcoming the narrator as he is surrounded by unexpected singing.

Inspiration works most effectively with an element of surprise. At this year’s Port Eliot Festival I’ll be dishing out poetry prescriptions from a makeshift pharmacy – listening to people’s complaints and prescribing three poems that they have to collect from the counter. I believe that in many cases a dose of poetic inspiration will have better health-giving effects than the drugs people are using.

And around the country I’m encouraging people to put poetry into the landscape. Visitors to the Olympic Park will encounter installations of specially commissioned poems about the history of the site. Is there poetry you’d like people to encounter where you are? For inspiration, visit our Winning Words website, www.winningwordspoetry.com.

"Winning Words" is published by Faber & Faber. William Sieghart has founded Forward Publishing, the Forward Poetry Prizes, National Poetry Day and Forward Thinking, a London-based NGO.

 

The Olympic Stadium in east London (Photograph: Getty Images)
GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution