A Case for the Human Cancer Survivor in a World of AI

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Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly popular and can even write generic poems about the cancer experience. However, I feel that they cannot compare to the writings of people who actually lived with the disease.

cartoon drawing of blogger and breast cancer survivor, felicia mitchell

I gave OpenAI, an artificial intelligence program, an assignment: “Write a poem about how a cat comforts a breast cancer survivor when she is feeling blue.” Within seconds, this “completion to the thought” materialized:

A gentle purr, a furry brush,

A calming meow and gentle hush,

A warm embrace of loving care,

To make a breast cancer survivor feel more aware.

The quiet moments, the gentle touch,

Of a furry friend that loves so much,

A soft purr, a gentle nuzzle,

To make a breast cancer survivor feel less troubled.

The soft purring, the comforting paw,

A soothing furball to make her feel more in awe,

A gentle meow and a friendly nudge,

To help a breast cancer survivor find solace and comfort in a hug.

The cuddles, the licks,

The unconditional love that never sticks,

A soft paw and a warm embrace,

To make a breast cancer survivor feel more in grace. 

Before I turn into a critic, let me acknowledge how a person could take solace from this greeting card of a poem. Wired for cuteness, it solicits smiles. Sweet, it could give others comfort. Because its narrator is generic, it could draw others to project their own feelings onto it, thereby serving a purpose: making a human feel warm and fuzzy.

Does this mean, then, humans are now less essential for writing about cancer? The speed with which the bot responded, albeit with a few forced wordings, surpasses my speed as a writer. Below is my poem in response to the same prompt:

 

After the surgery,

I could not lift my cat—

the one true and fuzzy thing

that might have made me feel better

those early days.

So Charles jumped on the dining table,

to get closer to me, to nuzzle,

or laid his paw on my incision

when I slept, gently, knowingly,

as if he knew the worst of it would pass

if I was as patient and crafty as a cat.

Now, when I am feeling blue,

my cat climbs all over me,

wherever I am, chair or couch or bed,

and settles down to purr,

this purring like a meditative “om”

gifted to me from the universe

or a brown noise that silences

my distracting fears.

 

It may have taken a half hour to compose these words, but it took years of surviving cancer to do the real homework. Thus, I am egotistical enough to assert that mine is the better poem of the two.

My poem is not as sweet. It takes more work to read and to interpret. It requires a real human to understand it. The experience is more personal, too, which means that the reader’s attention would be drawn more to my specific perspective. There is also a specificity of detail that helps draw a reader right into the emotional scenario.

I could drone on about what makes a good poem. What people prefer to read, however, is just as important. So often the right poem about cancer helps others to understand feelings, either to empathize or sympathize. For example, one poem I previously wrote is about how listening to antique music box recordings while knitting during chemo helped me to cope. I hoped it would help others. Will a bot be able to do that too? Not so much. A bot will never sit in a chemo chair and laugh at tangled tubes and wires while drinking hot tea.

Survivors realize the importance of the human voice when it comes to the cancer experience.This is not to say, though, that a bot will never be able to write a poem that touches the soul. As they evolve, bots may grow into human chameleons. That is such a worrisome thought that even Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI is worried, calling on the U.S. government to regulate artificial intelligence.

To probe such worries further, I asked the bot to reflect in prose on fears of recurrence. It responded with emotions culled from a human-inspired database of fears, including “I'm constantly reminded of the fragility of life—my own and those around me.” While this is not what I would say, it makes sense. A bot explaining what it is like to fear cancer, alas, is not the same as a human writing about it from the heart. Our unique voices say so much.


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