Robots and Poetry:  Can AI really replace EQ?    
Tue, 04 February 2020

“Even as robots and AI intrigue us and make us anxious about the future, our fascination with robots has always been about more than the potential of the technology – it’s also about what robots tell us about being human.” – David Ewing Duncan
While billions of children across the globe have grown up with the notion of “robots taking over the world” for decades, the term 'Artificial Intelligence' was first coined and defined in 1956 by American computer scientist John McCarthy as "the science and engineering of making intelligent machines…able to use and analyse data, algorithms and programming to perform actions, anticipate problems and learn to adapt to a variety of circumstances with and without supervision”.
Since then robots have indeed proven their mettle – from Hollywood studios to Japanese laboratories and factories; in fact, in virtually every corner of the globe. And they are nothing if not multi-skilled; making short shrift of everything from cleaning a house and killing an enemy (in the movies at least). Increasingly, they are making breakthroughs and news, even as they are making inroads deeper and deeper into our lives.

Says American author, blogger, software engineer and serial entrepreneur, R.L. Adams: “The machines haven't taken over. But from voice-powered personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, to more underlying… technologies such as behavioural algorithms and self-driving vehicles, they are seeping their way into our lives affecting how we live, work and entertain.”

Here’s the $64 million question:  Can they write poetry?

“We are told that, no matter how advanced Artificial Intelligence becomes, it will most likely never attain human qualities as pathos, empathy, humour and the creativity that drives art, cinema and literature. However, AI is created by humans who try to advance it further every day and imbue it with humanlike qualities.” – The Irish Times

According to a recent article in the Irish daily broadsheet newspaper, The Irish Times, computer scientists at Microsoft Research Asia are working on designing AI that attempts to mimic the depths and creativity of poetry using images as a source of inspiration. With the help of more than 8 000 images, researchers Bei Liu and Jianlong Fu trained their system using both humans and algorithmic agents. Here’s what their AI wrote after “seeing” a typical wintry countryside scene:

“Sun is shining.
The wind moves.
Naked trees.
You dance.”

Not bad.  And not, by any stretch of the imagination – human or artificial – the only example of robots playing around in the domain of poetry.

Here’s another example: Researchers in Australia in partnership with the University of Toronto have developed an algorithm capable of writing poetry. The AI was trained extensively on the rules it needed to follow to craft an acceptable poem. It was fed nearly 3 000 sonnets as training, and the algorithm tore them apart to teach itself how the words worked with each other. Once the bot was brought up to speed it was tasked with crafting some poems of its own. This is the result:

“With joyous gambols gay and still array
No longer when he ‘twas, while in his day
At first to pass in all delightful ways
Around him, charming and of all his days.”

Expressing matters of the heart, give or take the right software and hardwiring, is one thing. Exploring the infinitely intricate layers of emotions evoked by the experience of loss, is an entirely different matter.  And while some robots can apparently cry, the tears they shed, would lack the heart-rending reality and depth of the tears suggested by the work of the thousands of poets who have entered the AVBOB Poetry Project since its launch in 2017.

Says Johann de Lange, editor-in-chief, AVBOB Poetry Project: “While computers by sheer chance may manage a passable short poem every now and then, it is the human element that characterises great poetry and gives it meaning. It is being human and our experience of the world and one another that cannot be manufactured. A computer cannot have human experiences and emotions. It cannot have empathy, it doesn't have emotional intelligence. Language is the medium of poetry, and it is closely connected with our humanity. It is surely our greatest achievement.”

So, with all due respect to the apparent boom in poetry writing bots, their crucial role may well ultimately remain providing the green light for existing and aspiring South African poets in years and decades to come.



Bot or not
This website is a Turing Test* for poetry. You, the judge, have to guess whether the poem you’re reading is written by a human or by a computer.

If you think a poem was written by a computer, choose 'bot'. If you think it was written by a human, choose 'not'.

Visit - and see if you can spot the difference!
*A Turing Test is a test for intelligence in a computer, requiring that a human being should be unable to distinguish the machine from another human being by using the replies to questions put to both.