What Just Happened: Akil Kumarasamy Parses Quantum Plotlines and Large Language Models
Akil Kumarasamy is the author of the novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea (2022), and the linked story collection, Half Gods, (2018), which was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, was awarded the Bard Fiction Prize and the Story Prize Spotlight Award, and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. The American writer’s work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic, American Short Fiction, BOMB, among others, and she is an Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University-Newark MFA program.
What just happened? In August 2022, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, the debut novel of Akil Kumarasamy (US). Contrasting her previous short story collection focused on demigods and myth, one of its major narrative threads details a near future where AI plays a prominent role in decision making—it mostly doesn’t work—leaving her characters searching for meaning in milieu of malfunction and inefficiency.
Q: The central theme to your novel seems to be the limits of translation. The protagonist is scouring a manuscript documenting lives lived across time and space, and training AI models to be less clumsy in their interpretation of things is a recurring motif. How do you view the relation between these two narrative threads?
A: Both narratives are dealing with languages–coding, English, Tamil–and the limits of translation and the failures of it. The protagonist is training an AI model that ends up interpreting data in unexpected ways, and begins even responding beyond what it’s being fed. There’s much unknowability in this process. Similarly, the protagonist is also translating a text, and her translation would always be imperfect. In both projects, she is doing something without a clear understanding of why. Even though the AI project is her job, she doesn’t know what its true purpose is. Translating a relatively obscure manuscript has certainly no financial incentives, but there’s this urge for her to do it that is probably more enigmatic.
“I didn’t anticipate Meet Us by the Roaring Sea would cover so much ground, including CRISPR and quantum entanglement. I really let the book lead me to unexpected places. For me, its plot worked in a very quantum way. It wasn’t your usual Newtonian, cause-and-effect plot.”
Q: A character in your novel who is fatigued from too many bot interactions challenges your protagonist to ‘prove they are human’—their response is to recite poetry. The wary character doesn’t buy it and claims “that can all be programmed.” First, why poetry as a ‘captcha’? Secondly, what other ‘proofs of humanity’ are you thinking about in your writing?
A: I like how you compared the poetry as a kind of ‘captcha.’ I think we think there’s something intrinsically soulful to poetry, like it can only be created by a human. This is challenged by AI-generated art, so I wanted these things to be in conversation. As we see, an AI can arrange words in an affecting and lyrical way. Poetry is succinct. Someone can be moved by five words. When I think of AI-generated poetry, it still has a human touch because it’s being trained by existing poetry. I’m also wondering what does it mean when people say things like “our shared humanity.” Humanity is not shared equally. Some people’s humanity is often overlooked. In the novel, there’s a houseless character that becomes very vital, and in the manuscript, there are refugees escaping a war. In the terms of AI, I talk about narrow AIs being very specialized in certain tasks, but how general AI struggles to exceed the capabilities of a toddler. I’m asking what is intrinsically human?
A winding narrative that deftly illustrates the unresolvable tensions between ‘perfect’ translation and the incomprehensibility of lived experience, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea (2022) chronicles the lives of a group of teenage girls learning medicine in South India in the past, and a bereaved protagonist and her circle of friends in a fairly recognizable near future. These interwoven storylines articulate a search for compassion against the backdrop of suffering and atrocity, and a tale of personal mourning that captures the tragicomedy of our current ‘weird AI’ moment. With prose that dazzles and humbles, Kumarasamy blurs timelines, geographies, and genres in her deeply affecting debut novel.
Q: Because AI is everywhere in your writing, I have to ask: what do you think of Large Language Models like ChatGPT? Do they fill you with horror, glee, or something in between?
A: I’m mostly excited by models like ChatGPT. It feels wild what it’s capable of doing, and I know there’s also probably dread hidden somewhere in there too. Universities are fearful of students having ChatGPT write their essays for them. My friend asked ChatGPT to create a syllabus about literature and the Arab Gulf and it plagiarized her own syllabus. I find these interactions energizing though, of course, I still feel existential doom and feel more and more useless as a human.
Q: One of the novel’s central characters is Sal, an emerging artist whose debut solo show features an installation that chronicles AI-related deaths on a timeline. Are there specific artists that informed Sal’s character arc and her art practice?
A: I think Sal is a composite of many different kinds of visual artists I’ve been around. She’s a struggling artist, who happens to become famous because of the AI-related death of her parents. In trying to bring awareness to what happened, she is also accused of commodifying her pain for public consumption. Many artists are navigating this relationship between art and commerce. I went to an exhibit that was funded by Facebook and used VR. This VR projection of the artist asked the audience how they could try to alleviate the effects of capitalism, etc. It was really strange because the exhibit cost $25 to enter, and, on top of that, it was funded by a Facebook. It made me wonder how you critique something at the same time as you are participating in it? Of course, artists are scrambling for funding to make a living, to make their art.
“My friend asked ChatGPT to create a syllabus about literature and the Arab Gulf and it plagiarized her own syllabus. I find these interactions energizing though, of course, I still feel existential doom and feel more and more useless as a human.”
Q: Beyond the abundance of AI commentary, your novel is brimming with references to new scientific developments including CRISPR gene editing, quantum entanglement, and trauma resonating at the cellular level. What are your methods for staying on top of these diverse fields and your approach to incorporating them in your narratives?
A: I didn’t anticipate the book would cover so much ground, including CRISPR and quantum entanglement. But I really let the book lead me to unexpected places, and I’m very interested in reading about developments in science and technology. Also, I would highly recommend Melanie Mitchell’s book, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans. I’m someone who reads very widely and consumes many different kinds of media. For me, the plot in the novel worked in a very quantum way. It wasn’t your usual Newtonian, cause-and-effect plot.
What Just HappenedIn this serial interview format, HOLO checks in with artists, designers, curators, and researchers to get the lowdown on a timely topic—be it a new project, exhibition, or current event that ‘just happened.’
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Greg J. Smith
A writer and cultural worker based in Hamilton, Canada, Greg is an editor for HOLO and his writing has appeared in publications including Creative Applications Network, Musicworks, and Back Office. He is also a PhD candidate within the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, where he is researching the emergence of the programmable drum machine in the early 1980s.
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