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Essay: An AI Battle Royale
In which I challenge the machine to 4 rounds
Sadly, I am not a robot. Money is required for food, shelter, and the latest in men’s fashion from Costco. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber to help me acquire these things.
When I was a boy, I was captivated by a beautifully illustrated book by Ezra Jack Keats about the folk hero John Henry. If you’re unfamiliar with the legend, John Henry was a “steel-driving man” who swung a 10-pound hammer to earn his living until the day a fancy new steam-powered drilling machine came for his job in 1872.
There was a famous competition between man and machine to see who could clear more rock out of the side of a mountain to dig the Great Bend tunnel that would allow the railroad to pass through it. By the end of the day, John Henry had pounded through fourteen feet of rock and the steam engine had only dug nine. He won the competition but died immediately after from exhaustion. Like every child who hears the story, I rooted for John Henry. He made such a deep impression on my psyche that I had an imaginary friend I called Joy Henry for more than a year. To a child, it’s an inspiring story. To an adult, it’s a cautionary tale.
I think we know that our insatiable itch for technology will surely destroy us. One day, we’ll be in the queue for our final upgrade, our eyes wide in anticipation dreaming of faster, easier, brighter, bigger, longer until the trapdoor opens and we are dropped into a person-sized slot in the neural cluster - another processor added to the great machine.
It’s been said more than a few times in the last six months that we have reached an Oppenheimer inflection point with AI. Like chickens hypnotized by a stick repeating a line in the dirt (look it up), we are powerless to look away as AI-enabled features slip into every available crack and crevice in the software platforms we intentionally or accidentally use every day. Why? Because they’re just so damned cool. And what makes them so cool to us, you might ask? The answer is simple. We are a vain, narcissistic species and AI is a fun house of mirrors reflecting us in all our glory.
My Steam Engine Moment
I am not immune or above being enthralled by tech. I speak with authority on these matters having spent the majority of my life making digital things so I could take my family on vacation and pay for college. As generative AI takes the stage, pushing more creatives into the wings, I thought it might be the right time to pick up my hammer and make a last stand, John Henry style.
For your entertainment, I’ve devised a little friendly competition with the machine. You will be the judge to determine the winner. We will keep it to four rounds: writing, reading, music, and photography. I’m no match for AI when it comes to chess or decoding the human genome, so I will concede these.
Round 1: Writing
Here’s the prompt I gave myself and ChatGPT to write a bit of prose. We’ll see who did it better. Obviously, this is not a timed competition. Have you seen it work?!
In 100 words or less, write some literary prose that paints a scene where two ex-lovers who have not seen each other in thirty years meet at the funeral of a friend. Incorporate the color red in some compelling way.
I saw her long before I saw her. As I made my way up the winding track to the top of the hill where the mourners huddled around the hole in the ground like a uniform curtain of charcoal and black, there was a defiant streak of red like a fresh cut from a sharp knife. Who would wear crimson to a funeral? But then I remembered who and I felt a dull ache from the incision thirty years ago where she removed my heart. I knew she would not see me. I would be just another charcoal fold in the curtain.
Amidst a sea of somber grays and blacks, her crimson scarf caught the wind like a lonely flame. James' eyes met Emily's, time dissolving in that incendiary glance. Thirty years apart, yet their hearts beat the same melancholic rhythm. The funeral air grew thick with unspoken words. "You look beautiful," he finally murmured. "And you, unchanged," she replied, eyes brimming with nostalgia. Around them, mourners scattered roses, each petal a symbol of farewells—some for the friend laid to rest, others for chances forever lost.
Round 2: Reading
I love the human voice. I’ve spent years working on mine, teaching myself how to sing and do ridiculous accents. These obsessions were born out of being a bored teenager in a rural mountain town. I listened to a lot of music and watched far too much Monty Python.
The human voice is so distinct and nuanced that it’s hard to believe a machine could even come close to approximating it. In the last few years, there have been some incredible advances in modeling voices based on human subjects. I’ve experimented with a few pieces of software and even used some AI-generated voices to produce a piece of flash fiction called “What to Do About the Children.” The real test would be to clone my own voice and compare the results. At the encouragement of another writer friend here on Substack,, I did.
Below you will hear two readings of the same passage from my audio narration of Episode 2 of my serial novel, “Harmony House.” Take a listen and see if you can spot the robot.
Round 3: Music
AI-generated music is rapidly chewing away at the coattails of musicians, mostly because Spotify and other streaming services aren’t really interested in music as much as they are interested in staying rich. Paying musicians is counter to that goal. If they can generate millions of tracks for you to listen to as background music for your next barbeque, they don’t have to send checks to Jimmy Buffet anymore — bad example, he’s cashed his last royalty check.
I’m feeling a little winded here in round 3, but this is my wheelhouse damn it. I’ve got this. Ready, Fight!
Write, perform, and record a song that no one is willing to pay for.
Obligatory footnote »1
Round 4: Photography
You’ve seen AI-generated photography if you’ve been on the Internet in the last three months. It’s insanely good. Well, mostly. I hefted my four-year-old iPhone, the equivalent of John’s10-pound hammer, and did my best. But you be the judge.
Take a close-up 35mm photograph of a white man's hands folded together with fingers interlaced. top-down perspective, natural lighting.
How do we feel about all this?
That’s a wrap on this week’s goofy diversion. I’m anxious to see how I faired with the Judges. I hope you found it fun or at least educational. I’m all over the place in my feelings about AI if that’s not clear. I’m equally inspired and terrified about the possibilities which you can surmise by many of my posts here on Catch & Release. If you’re keen on this subject and would like to take a deeper dive, I have a novel here on Substack complete with full (human) audio narration that you can read/listen to.
Please jump into the comments and let me know how you’re feeling about the state of all this AI stuff. Excited? Bored? Terrified? I look forward to chatting.
Okay, so I didn’t just record this one. “A Quiet Place to Sit” was released last year around this time. You can join the other 4 people out there and listen to it on any of the streaming services. The AI track I generated here is one I’m considering for release. The working title is “Too Much Cologne for One Man”