The PrayTell blog post “Prayers of the fA.I.thful” caught my attention last month, and I wondered briefly at the time how A.I. would do writing sacred hymn or song lyrics. A couple weeks later when I read Noam Chomsky’s opinion piece “The False Promise of ChatGPT” (note: it’s behind a New York Times paywall) another brief period of wonderment occurred.
When it comes to technology, it’s not that I’m resistant, but I am inert. I’m usually at the tail end of every “slow adopter” curve, which is why not only was I among the last to own a smartphone, but is also why I still have what I’ve come to call my Jurassic SmartPhone.
It was while working on a new Lenten text for my composer colleague Ed Bolduc that my wondering came to an end. Ed had asked ChatGPT to:
—Write me five lines of hymn text based on the Year A reading from the Catholic Lectionary for the season of Lent.
And ChatGPT agreeably responded:
Sure! Here are five lines of hymn text based on the cycle A reading from the Catholic Lectionary for the season of Lent:
“I come to the cross where mercy is found,
And find my salvation, salvation abound.”
“In the shadow of the cross, I lay down my pride,
And lift up my heart to you, my Savior and guide.”
“From the ashes of sin, I rise with new life,
Through the grace of Your love, free from all strife.”
”I walk in the footsteps of Jesus, my Lord,
As I journey through Lent, trusting His Word.”
“Through the sorrow and pain, I find hope and new birth,
As I cling to the cross and the promise of new life on earth.”
I here publicly confess, since we’re still in the season of Lent, that my first reaction was relief; it seemed like there was no immediate danger of human hymn/song text writers (including me) being replaced any time soon.
A second reaction was more along the lines of trying to figure out what source(s), exactly, these five lines had been based on. Since these A.I. programs “take huge amounts of data, search for patterns in it and become increasingly proficient at generating statistically probable outputs” (Chomsky), I presumptuously wondered if my own “Ashes to the Living Font” was partly submerged under the third verse of this text.
Looking at ChatGPT’s text, I immediately noted the some of the same missteps that I frequently encounter when working with or coaching/mentoring first-time or novice text writers. It was a little surprising to me that something as mathematically-related as meter seemed to be a stumbling point. The text also answered the question of what the top five Lent/Easter rhyming couplets are.
As with the Prayers of the fA.I.thful from last month, the focus with this lyric seemed to be largely on content, not on any sort of poetic finesse apart from rhyme, or how these words would sound out in the air, prior to being set to music (a commonly-missed step among human prayer/lyric authors as well). Personally speaking, I view this technology’s potential as being more akin to an online rhyming dictionary (a technology I use for very nearly every hymn text I’ve written in this century, which has merely replaced the earlier technology of the printed book).
Of course, all of this has addressed only the topic of A.I. and writing lyrics. ChatGPT’s musical cousins (such as AIVA) have been at music-composing for quite some time, writing everything from “new” pieces by Bach—who I’ve learned is easier for A.I. to imitate than Chopin is—to working with pop musicians and in live concert situations as well. The potential for A.I. to compose everything from new chants to choral works to congregational song creates its own labyrinthine network of questions. (SciFi seems to have—in my limited experience—a hesitancy to explore the relationship between A.I. and music. The Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey only learned an existing song; Commander Data’s participation in a chamber music group on Star Trek TNG was, at least to the eyes/ears of this musician, handled rather tenuously.)
These current A.I. machine learning programs are, we need to remember, truly early and initial steps in what will, no doubt, be a long process of a technology continuing to evolve. They are cave paintings, not papal chapel ceilings. For those of us working in the realms related to liturgy, this technology will likely join (exactly how, I do not know—homilies?) other technologies—printed books, sound systems—and will be woven into the fabric of liturgical practice until we aren’t consciously aware of them.
Will this be another “New Song” that the psalter refers to? As with all other gifts given to us by God, the real development will be to discern how we ought to use this gift as wise—if sometimes wary—stewards.