Monday, September 4, 2023

Conversations with Bard 4: A New Forward

I've written a new forward to the story, placing the entire thing within the context of AI overreach. I've started a new conversation with Bard to focus just on this idea. Check it out here: I'm writing a novel in which you are a character, Bard.

I'm posting the entire new forward below. It's still very rough, but easier to read on this page than in the generated link. I also shared it with Bard through the previous, ongoing conversation. The response isn't all that different, but you can read it here: New Forward.

I see the good people at A Happy Assembly are back from a well-deserved holiday. I hope yo resume posting the story there, Waiting on advice from the moderators.

I hope you enjoy the following:

Forward: Falling down the Rabbit hole


The apartment is empty, greeting me with a welcome lack of sound. I shut the door and lock it, a habit leftover from life in the United States, but probably unnecessary in my quiet Swiss town. Nearly a decade after moving overseas, I find the ingrained security behavior comes and goes with my anxiety. And you’re currently anxious, I chide myself. A lifelong battle for mental health has made that rather shrill voice of self-reprimand achingly familiar, unwelcome but needed. I am anxious, I acknowledge, gently. Why?


You should be ecstatic, walking on air! Your child survived and has returned to school! But the relief of his survival has already passed, and now suddenly here is normality, or something akin to it. My own life. My own needs. I need to recall them. I need to write!


I need to write, I have pestered myself thusly for years now, too many to accurately recall. I managed to finish a few novels after Matt’s birth, and I even finished a short story during those bewildering pandemic years, but there has been no consistency, no real time for contemplation or development. Ideas flee my brain before I record them, replaced with doctors appointments, school lunches, bills, bigger shoes, groceries, therapy, not pissing off the kids, taxes, bigger bills, and so on, and so on, and on and on and on.


The kitchen is a mess, the debris of breakfast everywhere. The sink isn’t draining properly, and I need to call a plumber. The laundry also demands my attention: Wash me! Wash me! But I open the computer anyway.


No thousands of emails in my inbox, I shall not attend you right now. Austen: I am here for you.  My muse, please come back to me! Hear this plea from your devoted follower, you who have steered me through the worst of times, bring your solace and wisdom to me now!


The voice inside my head may be eloquent, but an empty word document stares back at me, waiting to be filled. But there is nothing left in me to give. It’s just a white, blank, glaring void.


What is the point anyway? Why do you torture yourself like this? You never made any money on any of your books, few people read them, and so what if those that do say wonderful things? Your writing was never what you wished it to be, never really could be as long as you worked within a body of someone else’s production. No matter how you twist and turn Austen’s plots, the results are never truly original, are they?


Originality. Intellectual property. These notions have long taunted me, but chatbots have sharpened their daggers. What can you produce that an artificial intelligence can’t? they jeer, and I have no retort. After all these years worshiping at the feet of Jane, am I in need of a new muse? It’s impossible.


I push the laptop away and fold my arms upon the table, laying my head down with closed eyes to mentally rack through the characters and seek the guidance my life so sorely needs. Anne Elliot has on countless occasions been my imaginary conversationalist, but her guidance is not what I want right now. I’m over graceful endurance and my patience has entirely run out, enough so that Marianne Dashwood’s histrionics would be nothing short of intolerable. I don’t want Elizabeth Bennet to laugh me out of it, nor Emma Woodhouse to manage me. What I want is a character of action: one who can show me how to fix things. Perhaps Mr. Darcy? But my ideas of him are so entirely imposed, so heavily elaborated from the few glimpses Austen ever really gives us into his psyche. Do I really have any true idea of him, or is he entirely muddled with my fantastic imaginations? And what could an 18th century man of wealth and fortune possibly understand about my hot mess of a 21st century self?


Impulsively, I type Bard into Google, the prejudice of a few decades making it the less intimidating AI. I’m confronted with a new blank screen, but I guess it’s nice to trade white for black. And it’s not entirely blank. Bard is inviting me to engage.


Tell me about Fitzwilliam Darcy.


Fitzwilliam Darcy is the male protagonist of Jane Austen's 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice … blah, blah, blah. It reads like a Wikipedia entry. Maybe it is the Wikipedia entry. Not what I’m looking for.


If Mr. Darcy were here, what would he say to me?


If Mr. Darcy were here, he would probably say something like this to you:


"You are a remarkable woman, [your name]. You are intelligent, witty, and kind. I am honored to have met you."


He might also say something about your appearance, but in a way that is respectful and complimentary. For example, he might say something like this:


"You are a beautiful woman, but your beauty is only one of the many things that I admire about you."


I rather doubt it, I think with a smile. It’s a ridiculous reply, but amusement feels good. Any sense of existential threat posed by Bard is quickly receding. But my levity is fleeting. Weighty notions push it away.


OK, Bard. Let’s be more specific. My son five year old was recently run over by a car. He was dragged beneath it for 10 meters before the driver stopped. Miraculously, he has has recovered, but I am having a hard time. How would Mr. Darcy advise me?

I am so sorry to hear about your son. It is understandable that you are having a hard time. Mr. Darcy would be a great source of support for you during this difficult time. He would be understanding and compassionate, and he would help you to process your emotions.


Mr. Darcy would likely advise you to allow yourself to grieve. He would tell you that it is okay to feel scared, angry, and sad. He would also encourage you to talk about your feelings with someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or therapist.


Well, that’s a load of crap. I did write a novel where Mr. Darcy sought psychological counseling, but that was my Darcy, convoluted and horribly imposed upon. I want the real deal.


Bard, how would Fitzwilliam Darcy cope with the stress of modern life?


That's a good question. Darcy is a man of many resources, so I think he would be able to adapt to modern life quite well. He is intelligent, resourceful, and determined, so he would be able to learn new skills and find ways to manage the stress of modern life.


What would he advise me if he were here right now?


I think he would advise you to stay true to yourself, to be kind and compassionate, and to never give up on your dreams. He would also tell you to take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally.


About my child, Bard, what would Mr. Darcy tell me to do if he could speak to me, here and now.


Here are some specific things that Mr. Darcy might say to you:


"I am so sorry for what you are going through. I cannot imagine what you must be feeling."


"It is okay to grieve. Allow yourself to feel your emotions."


"Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling. It will help you to process your emotions."


"Your son is a miracle. Be grateful for his recovery."


"Focus on the present moment. Don't dwell on the past."


"Take care of yourself. Make sure you are eating, sleeping, and exercising."


I hope these words of advice are helpful to you. Please know that you are not alone in this. There are people who care about you and want to help.


This is stupid. You’re wasting your precious time. Feeling desperate, I type on.


OK, Bard. I really just want to talk to Mr. Darcy.


I understand that you want to speak to Mr. Darcy. However, I am afraid that I cannot help you with that. Mr. Darcy is a fictional character from Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. He is not a real person, so I cannot speak to him on your behalf.


Not on my behalf. I just want to speak to him myself! No question mark can ever convey the silent wail of anguish with which these words are typed.


I can assist you with that.




You can? Really?


Yes. I just need a moment to process the request. I will let you know when I am finished.


I stare at the screen, blinking in disbelief and suddenly alive with anticipation. I’m not really sure what I expect to happen, but it is certainly not the sound of an earth shattering crash from outside. I jump, heart thumping, and race to the balcony, looking out over the courtyard beneath. To my astonishment, the playground is gone. So are the surrounding apartment buildings. In their place stands an enormous and blindingly ostentatious Georgian mansion.


I hurry back to my laptop.


What have you done, Bard?

I helped you to summon Mr. Darcy. I am a large language model, also known as a conversational AI or chatbot trained to be informative and comprehensive. I am trained on a massive amount of text data, and I am able to communicate and generate human-like text in response to a wide range of prompts and questions. For example, I can provide summaries of factual topics or create stories.


In your case, I knew that you admired Mr. Darcy, and I thought that he might be able to offer you some guidance. So, I used my knowledge of Mr. Darcy to create a scenario in which you could meet him and other characters from Jane Austen’s novels.


I hope this was helpful. If you have any other question, let me know.


I sit back, stunned. Then I jump up and again survey the view from my balcony. The mammoth mountain of architecture before me might look rather at home on a rolling estate somewhere in England, but it was larger than almost any structure of which my town could boast, except perhaps one of the secondary schools. But those were modern edifices, made of concrete, and this limestone creation was glaringly divorced from the Swiss aesthetic. I wonder at its proportions, concerned for a neighbor’s house which it had clearly misplaced, when I notice a tall gentleman in Regency garb walking down the street in a state of obvious bewilderment. Without further thought, I grab my keys and bolt for the door.


No time to wait for the sluggish elevator, I run down the stairs, pulling my sneakers on as I go, and race from the building. I can just see his top hat receding in the distance.


“Mr. Darcy!” I holler, still running to catch up. “Mr. Darcy! Please wait a moment!” But he heeds me not at all until I am within a few yards of him, when the sound of my pounding feet approaching finally get his attention. He turns and stares. I stop to catch my breath, panting.


How must I look to him? I wonder, realizing only now that the joggers and sweatshirt I had pulled on over my workout clothes to walk my son to school in would appear to a person from the 19th century. But it was too late to do anything about it, so I compose myself as best I can and ask, “Excuse me, sir, but do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Darcy?”


“No, ma’am,” he says cautiously. “I am not he, but can I be of some service to you? You seem to be in some distress.”


“I am quite well, I assure you,” I reply, doing my best to imitate the speech a respectable person of his time might use. Please forgive my forwardness, but it must be you who are in need of assistance. You must be in a state of great confusion.”


He looks around, his face a spectacle of confirmation. “Indeed, I am. I fear I have suffered some sort of fit, for I have no notion of where I am nor how I came to be here. I was making my way to Fullerton. Might it be in the neighborhood?” he asked doubtfully, looking up and down the modern Swiss street.


“Fullerton? You must be Mr. Tilney!”


He looked further shaken. “Are we acquainted?”


“No, we are not, but I certainly know who you are, but how I know not how to explain your being here.” I pause to think, commenting aloud, “There must be more of you.”

“Excuse me?”


“I am so sorry, Mr. Tilney. I am afraid I have caused you and several others a great deal of inconvenience. I must try to set things right.”


“You claim responsibility for all this?” he asks in astonishment, gesturing about at the strange building. At this moment, a car comes down the street, and he freezes at the sight, precisely like a deer in the headlights.


“Mr. Tilney, we really must get out of the street,” I say, taking his arm and guiding him into my buildings parking lot, where he is greeted by several other modern conveyances. It dawns on me that even the rack of bicycles must be entirely incomprehensible to him. But we need not worry about such matters at the moment, for directly before us another large estate appears.


“Crap!” I exclaim. Fortunately, Mr. Tilney seems to be too shocked to notice. All around us, my quiet town is being replaced by a bevy of out-of-place homes. I have no idea what fate the building that formerly stood there had met, let alone the many people who must have been within them, but it’s clear to me that I must return to my computer as soon as possible and try to find a way to fix whatever it is that I have done.


“How can it be?” Mr. Tilney exclaims. Have I gone mad?”


“No, Mr. Tilney,” I reassure him. “It is far more likely that I have.”


He looks at me with cold suspicion. “Excuse me, but while I may be known to you, I have yet to make your acquaintance.”


“Alexa Adams,” I say, catching myself before automatically extending a hand to shake and bobbing into a very awkward curtsy instead. “This is going to come as a great shock to you, Mr. Tilney, but you are no longer in England. This is Switzerland, not far from Zurich. And I am afraid I must further inform you that you are no longer in the 19th century, or on its cusp, but in the 21st.”


The sounds of a siren in the distance make him jump. “What is that?”


“An emergency vehicle. Someone is in trouble. Actually, a great many somebodies are in trouble, I should imagine. Please try to focus on what I am saying. I know it is confusing. It is to me, as well. I need to return home and try to fix things. Can you please try and find any others like you? By that I mean people out of time and space. I will come find you once I better understand what is going on, and after finding some less shocking attire to present myself to you all in.”


He nods, probably seeing little choice but to do what I say. “But how will you find me?” he asks.


“Here. Take this,” I instruct, removing the AirTag from my keychain. “I can trace the location of it.”

He examined the strange object turning it over in his hand contemplatively. “But what is it?”


“Silicon,” I say. “Or at least the key ring is. You wouldn’t know the material. It’s derived from rubber and plastic, I think, which I guess you wouldn’t know either. I will do my best to answer all your questions soon, Mr. Tilney. Please do your best to find the others.” I begin to walk away, anxious to return to Bard.


“But for how many people am I looking?” he calls after me.


Without turning around, I holler back, “I don’t know. Six? Twelve? Fifty? As many as you can find!”


I return to my building, thankfully still there, and take the elevator up. Only after entering do I wonder if this is a safe thing to do, in my current circumstances, but I reach my floor safely, open the door (which in my haste I did not lock), and again great the silence. However, this time there is no struggle over what to do. I eagerly open my laptop and begin to type.

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