The Real Time Power of Poetry in a Digital World

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I had the privilege of addressing one of, if not the oldest tech communities in the world, the Real Time Club. It was formed in 1967 by the American IT entrepreneur Alan Marshall and is currently chaired by the marvelous Dr John Collins. At this dinner, there was, as ever, a gathering of people from a large variety of backgrounds, each one more interesting than the other. Held in the David Lloyd George room at the National Liberal Club, my talk was on empathy in business and artificial intelligence. But, as I will reveal at the bottom here, I reminded about one important thing with which we all could do more. And that was the real present of The Real Time Club dinner.

Having a re@l good time…

Photo by Dr John Collins

The talk was tremendous fun and sparked a pleasant and wide-ranging conversation. John kindly wrote of the evening: “…enormous fun, thought-provoking and inspiring. I love organising Real Time Club events – especially when they’re as great as this one … one of the very best evenings we’ve had in a while.”

The interest in empathy

As I’ve now done about 30 speeches around my new book, Heartificial Empathy, I have come to realize that the topic is striking a chord among audiences. Typically, if it’s a self-selecting group, I’ve seen that the audience will skew higher on the empathy scale. But the reasons that people come seem to be clumped into three categories:

  1. Keen to see how the world could enjoy more empathy
  2.  Curious to understand how to bring more empathy into the workplace
  3. Suspicious about how one could encode empathy into artificial intelligence

Which category do you fall into? Or do you have another one?

This particular speech at the Real Time Club led to a wonderfully interactive ping-pong of comments, interrogations and queries. The conversation lasted well into the night. But as much as we might have been discussing techy, geeky and business-related topics — including how to encode AI with emotions and empathy — the highlight of the evening for me came with the evening’s finale. John brought the evening to a close by quoting Jonas Mekas (1922-2019), the Lithuanian-American filmmaker:

“In the very end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets.”

Jonas Mekas

With that, John brought up Andy Low who had penned a poem during the evening, a sort of recap or tale that captured the evening’s conversation and energy. Herewith Andy’s poem.

Empathy:

Being able to detect and recognise within ourselves the feelings and experiences of someone else.
Able to detect, decode, subtle expressions, muscular microcode.
Differences in speech, minute changes in the meanings of words.
Detecting the timings of micro expressions, reacting with timely recognition.
Differentiate between desire, doubt, fear, rejection.
Manage, manipulate expectation.
Corporate greed driven empathy with A.I. and big brother’s big data.
Mephistopheles rapes Margaretta.

———————————————-

In order to see someone else’s situation in oneself, one needs to have evolved a self.
The development of self.
Body, brain, mind, self: Self as seen by self:

———————————————-

Just who am I?
Well, if by that you mean
this feeling, thinking, whinging thing.
I am the unexpected adjunct of an artefact.
Ain’t that a fact!
But perhaps you mean the thing you see.
Well, that’s not me.
That’s a repository,
A self-refuelling battery,
but in a way, it created me.
A consciousness able to control that what created it to make it free
by dint of physics, chem and electricity,
Driven on by entropy and the slightest edge in the balance of probability. 
Able to imagine and then create its destiny.
That’s me.

by Andy Low, Poet in Residence at The Real Time Club

Poetry is often neglected in our reading lists. It certainly has been for me. In today’s fast-paced world, we are lucky if we consume a few haiku on Twitter. But, it’s true that it brings another edge to our tech-filled world. To wit, as my astronomist friend Arnaud said, the renowned astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan used to teach a course at the University of Virginia entitled, “Astronomy for Poets.” Thuan is well known for wanting to combine the arts and astrophysics (cf “The Secret Melody”). Moreover, I owe a hat tip to my former employer, L’Oreal, where we used to talk about the quality of being both poet and peasant (first ascribed to Francois Dalle, CEO 1957-1983). That certainly resonated for me.

Thanks to the Real Time Club audience for their presence and super engagement. Thank you to John for the invitation and for generously providing my book to all the participants. And, finally, a full bow and hat tip for the poet-in-residence, Andy! Here’s to keeping the poetry alive!

To be continued.

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