AI, Nick Cave, and the Annihilation of the Human Heart

Tom Gammarino
4 min readJan 23, 2023


Photo by Lokesh Masania on Unsplash

Opposition to generative AI comes in many flavors. People worry about what these technologies will do to our jobs, about the intellectual property issues, about ramifications for education and entertainment, among many other things (I’ve written about some of them here).

Then there is the cry of existential despair. I recently read the (excellent) New York Times article “This Film Does Not Exist,” about the prospect of AI-produced films, and came across a reader’s comment that caught my attention for its dramatic tone. The commenter, a writing teacher lamenting that we are losing “real stories,” reaches her crescendo by saying, “I barely know what to write next, because I feel as though I am standing somewhere hugely distant, watching the annihilation of the human heart.”

This is no doubt coming from a very deep place, and as a default humanist, I sympathize. We can look back at history and see many examples of times technology has transformed our world, and with it, our worldviews: writing, the printing press, the camera, nukes, the Apollo missions, the internet…

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us,” John Culkin once wrote of media theorist Marshall McCluhan’s ideas. We can’t yet know how these new AI tools will shape us — at this point, we’re still heavily engaged in shaping them, feeding their machine-learning algorithms with every interaction — but it’s not crazy to think that, over coming generations, we may become unrecognizable to ourselves. Our near descendants may be as different from us as medieval monks from modern-day cosmologists; indeed, if the transhumanists are right, the difference will be orders of magnitude greater than that.

McLuhan talked about how every technology is an extension of the human range — telephones, our voices; cars, our feet, etc. — but with every extension come amputations as well — poor penmanship because we no longer write letters, poor health because we no longer walk. So when technologies come along that make our art for us, we must ask: What amputations await? Are we really about to sacrifice the human heart?

Clearly the commenter isn’t talking about “the human heart” in any biological sense but a culturally constructed one. Is it possible that AI is just shining a light on holes in those stories we’ve been telling ourselves for a very long time about what makes our species special? Stories in which a human mind is more than an organic information-processing machine but animated by some divine, or at least quasi-divine, spark? Is AI the last nail in the coffin of the idea of a soul?

On the other hand, if “the human heart” names something enduring and universal, how, short of killing us, can some fancy code in computers be any threat to it? Perhaps the commenter’s sense of what it means to be human is bound up with the individualist and transactional ethos of capitalism in ways she herself might not recognize. We can still write our books and paint our paintings; there just may be less hope than ever of reaching an audience or feeding our families with them.

Or maybe the commenter’s despair is an extension of the education concern, which is bigger than any economic system. Twice in her comment she repeats the phrase “We are losing,” and as a teacher myself, I also feel some of this nascent loss. I despair less at the possibility of students using AI to cheat than of their depriving themselves — or being deprived — of the tools they need to think and, yes, narrativize their ways through interesting, ethical lives. I’m wary of reducing education to instructing future generations on how to fine-tune prompts so as to get whatever they want in a jiffy from their outsourced brains.

The musician Nick Cave has some thoughts on the subject. Last week he responded to a fan who had prompted ChatGPT to write a song “in the style of Nick Cave.” He ended his letter like this:

ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

Mark, thanks for the song, but with all the love and respect in the world, this song is bullshit, a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human, and, well, I don’t much like it —

We can feel the same anguished cri de coeur in Cave’s letter as in the commenter’s lament. Both responses are broadly dismissive of the new technology, but they also seem quite discomfited by it, as if AI has indeed stepped on their toes or trespassed on their turf.

Roboticist Masahiro Mori famously gave us the term “uncanny valley” to describe that developmental phase in android robotics when we become uncomfortable because our humanoid machines begin to think and act too much like us. Mori believed that on the far side of that valley, when our humanoid machines became indiscernible from us, we’d warm to them again, but I wonder if, for certain applications at least, knowing our machines are machines might not always ill-dispose us to them? If it turned out that your favorite novel or song of all time was in fact written by a robot, would it still be your favorite? Hasn’t art, at some level, always been about communing with other organic minds, opening a crack in the wall of these skull-sized prisons we’re otherwise condemned to?

Cave had to qualify “authentic human experience” with “no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become,” and it’s this sentiment that pricks my own greatest fears. Not that AI will annihilate the human heart, but that humans will. Not that dystopia will be imposed on us, but that, seduced by its many charms, we’ll opt in.

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Tom Gammarino

Tom Gammarino is an author and teacher. He writes about those places where art and science intersect. Learn more at