Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tales during the tumultuous changes of the19th century Industrial Revolution. Can one of his stories speak truth to our current Industrial Revolution of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence? Here are a few reflections on how Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Nightingale” might present a cautionary tale as educators continue to explore the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies and artificial intelligence. Also included below are some “connections” prompted by recent student discussions of new technologies.
The nightingale lived on the furthest reaches of the emperor’s lands in a “beautiful woods with “lofty trees and deep lakes” (242). Its song causes even the poor fisherman to pause in his daily work as he listens to the song. Though the nightingale agrees to be brought to the royal court to sing for the emperor, the bird says its song “sounds best among the trees” (246).
The nightingale’s song is best appreciated in its natural surroundings, “among the trees,” and not when the bird is tethered to a golden perch in the royal court. Its song also causes the listener to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the song. Later, this song has healing qualities as the emperor is rescued from Death by listening to the nightingale’s song.
Seventh graders examined how exposure to nature can make us healthier and discussed whether technologies such as Virtual Reality can duplicate the experience of being in nature.
Using the Scientific American article “Can Virtual Reality Mimic Nature’s Power to Make Us Healthier,” students examined the successful efforts of VR researchers, but also reflected on this caution from VR researcher Matthew Browning: “It’s a tool. It’s not a replacement . . . We have to be careful with not pushing it in a way that would take money or attention away from investing in urban greening and parks” (Bartels).
In Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a mechanical bird arrives as a gift for the emperor. The artificial bird delights the royal court with its sparkling appearance–“glittered like bracelets and breast pins”–and a predictable song that is “perfectly in time and correct in every way” (248). The royal court’s music master praises the superiority of the glittery, mechanical bird over the plain-looking nightingale. In comparing their songs, he faulted the nightingale’s song because it was unpredictable and different each time: “you never know what you will hear.” But with the mechanical bird, there is predictability: “everything is decided beforehand . . . one note follows upon another” (249).
Difference and unpredictability in a voice (the nightingale’s song) is not valued by the emperor’s music master. The music master diagrammed the gears of the mechanical bird and praised its ability to produce a predictable, immediate response. However, creativity thrives on the convergence of unpredictable elements and the struggles to create meaning through problem-solving and making connections. This artificial songbird (artificial voice) has “something wanting,” as the poor fisherman observed, “It sounds very nice, and it is very nearly like the real one, but there is something wanting” (249).
Students in grades 5-8 enjoyed discovering the “authentic voice” as they examined two poems, one written by our school’s Technology Support Specialist, Jennifer Hockless, and one written by ChatGPT. Each were challenged to create a poem using as many of the following words as possible: Neptune, black tie, radical, lightning, sunny-side up, herb garden. As you view the two poems, which poem do you think has the authentic voice of a human?
Students correctly selected the poem “City Girl Dreams” as written by a human, noting the personal feelings expressed in the poem. In contrast, the ChatGPT poem “Cosmic Poetic Wonders” has a predictable rhyming couplet pattern and forced wording that is sometimes nonsensical, such as “A black tie soars” and “Amid celestial rays, sunny-side up.”
Another interesting reflection on the importance of authentic voice was shared by educator and writer Alexis Wiggins during a conference presentation at STLinSTL. Alexis Wiggins and co-teacher Ashley Bryson challenged senior film students (John Cooper School, Woodlands, Texas) to create a 3 min. movie incorporating cinematic techniques. The constraint: the movie script would be generated by ChatGPT from randomized elements, such as story conflict, location, and genre of movie. When surveyed following the project, students said they enjoyed the project but wished that they could have written their own scripts. This experience of being required to use AI-generated scripts caused students to appreciate the value of their own authentic voice.
Empathy and Connections
In Andersen’s fairy tale, each person has a unique connection and reaction to the nightingale’s song.The nightingale’s song brings tears to the eyes of the emperor and a kitchen maid describes the effects of the song: “Its song brings tears into my eyes. I feel as if my mother were kissing me” (245).
The nightingale’s song not only appealed to their hearts, it also prompted introspection. The nightingale tells the emperor that its song will help the emperor to empathize with others in his kingdom, thereby building perspectives for wise rule and decision making. The nightingale says to the emperor, that it will “sing to cheer you and make you thoughtful, too. I will sing to you of the happy ones and of those that suffer. I will sing about the good and the evil, which are kept hidden from you” (253).
Fifth graders watched a TODAY Show video and read a news article about rescue worker Denise Corliss and her search dog Bretagne. Working 12 hour shifts, Bretagne was one of 300 search and rescue dogs that looked for survivors at ground zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.Though Bretagne did not find any survivors, this dog’s affectionate nature had a healing effect for the exhausted rescue workers. Veteran firefighter Chuck Jones observed the following:
“It was really heartwarming to see these big, rough firefighters and rescue people sit down next to Bretagne. Bretagne would put her head in their laps, and you’d see the tension come off their faces” (Coffey). Though advances in technology may make future rescue operations more efficient, the importance of human compassion and, in this case, the loving affection of the search and rescue dog, is crucial for healing.
Fairy tales possess truisms that speak to the human condition. Timeless stories such as Andersen’s “The Nightingale” provide a mirror for reflection, and perhaps these stories can also serve as windows to frame our vision as we look toward future possibilities and challenges of AI technologies.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Grosset and Dunlap, 1945.
Bartels, Meghan. “Can Virtual Reality Mimic Nature’s Power to Make Us Healthier?” Scientific American, 14 July 2023, www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-virtual-reality-mimic-natures-power-to-make-us-healthier/. Accessed 12 Sept. 2023.
Coffey, Laura T. “Last 9/11 Search Dog.” TODAY, 7 Sept. 2021, www.today.com/pets/last-9-11-search-dog-bretagne-s-legacy-lives-rescue-t229805. Accessed 11 Sept. 2023.