Wednesday, February 04, 2009

AI poetics?

Reading about flarf got me started on a train of thought that isn't really related...

Having grown up with science fiction, I've always taken it for granted that someday (I've generally assumed, not in my lifetime), we'd be living among artificial intelligences that were "alive" in every sense except the strictly biological. That they would be at least as intelligent as humans. At least as free-willed. At least as creative.

("Soul?" Does a dog have soul? How about cockroach?)
--The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

It may be coming sooner than I'd thought. There's a program out there that convincingly simulates an 18-month-old toddler. The team running "Hal" (I can't believe they call it "Hal", isn't that just tempting fate?) plans to, over the next 10 years or so, develop it to the linguistic level of an adult. Well, it takes us that long.

So my question is... if such a program were to produce a poem... how good would it have to be before we'd agree that it was a poem? I'm not trying to be snide here, but, who's going to set the bar? Not the notorious, we'd hope: some of the stuff they've accepted doesn't even qualify as language.

OK, that's not fair: was a complete scam from the start, and I doubt if anyone actually read the submissions. But. Flarf and Dada and other semi-random linguistic productions have been recognized as legitimate literature in the past. We have the capacity now to produce this sort of verbiage completely automatically. Add just a little intelligence around grammar and semantics, and we may be able to produce completely computer-generated texts that are not distinguishable from published poems by human poets.

I'm not talking distant-future scenarios: I think we're there. And not just at the level of I'm waiting for a Sokal affair to play out in the pages of a prestigious poetry journal.

Quick update on this: a couple of people have pointed out some notorious poetry hoaxes, the Yasusada case (of which I was aware) and the Ern Malley case (of which I wasn't, thanks again, Ron). Neither of those is strictly pertinent, in that both involved poetry written by humans posing as other humans. A poetry Turing test would involve poetry written entirely by a computer program, which humans could not tell wasn't written by a human. (The Sokal reference may have been misleading here.)

So far we've had poetry which was a hoax but not written by computers, and poetry which was (at least partly) written by computers but was not a hoax.

Collection available! Knocking from Inside


Matt said...

First, I think dependent on how we define software, the idea of software becoming sentient is impossible.

However, someday man might create hardware that mimics biology and can become sentient. That sentience will probably immediately start pondering the nature of existence, especially its own existence, and in doing so, it might produce some really fine poetry.

Now, taken what I've said above, if someone produced a software program that merely mimicked poetry (is non-sentient), then maybe we'd have to regard the program as being a kind of meta-poetry or something like this.

Think about it like this. If a programmer can design a software program that defeats you in chess were you defeated by the software or by the programmer?

Having said all this, I'm very skeptical about a software program that can compose good poetry. But who knows?

Irving said...

Hmmm, I don't think that any intelligence is artificial, just as the human being programmed by genetics and rote learning can be called educated, unless some creative force overcomes such limits. That is the real poetic question. Does AI have the capacity to love, and so appreciate beauty.

Ya Haqq!

Michael Theune said...


Great ideas here! A few reflections--

--Some might say that we already have had a Sokal hoax in recent American poetry: the Araki Yasusada hoax. Very worth looking into.

--One feature of poems that I admire a great deal is the creation in the poem of a moment of, what I awkwardly call, fitting surprise, a moment when the poem delivers something both tied in to the concerns of the poem and leaping beyond them. Fitting surprise is at the heart of the creation of both wit and the sublime in writing. Computers seem capable, right now, of doing fit OR surprise, but not this amazing combination of the two... Of course, once software turns sentient, all bets are off, but for now, fitting surprise, for me, is at the heart of much great poety, and it is a core that computer program poetry--again, for now--cannot touch.

Thanks for your good post!
Mike Theune

floreta said...

VERY interesting. and lol @

there is actually a youtube video of a robot playing violin. it's actually quite impressive. but there's another instance of AI + art...

Regina Marie said...

Interesting.The firms philosopy.."If it looks intelegent & must be" and, "If you perceive other people are intelligent w/out knowing how their brains work and if you were to meet a robot that is indistinguishable in human appearance and indistinguishable in behavior then you would think it was a human being, " Hutchens explains." I think the answer is in the Spirit.

Fledgling Poet said...

Unless it's written by a soul-bearing being, I don't believe it's an authentic poem. That would be my own personal observation...what an interesting thing to think about, though! Very interesting subject matter.

Lilibeth said...

Well, we have to remember that someone has to write a program that inspires the computer to try spurting out a poem on it's own. . .and what's it going to address--another computer that it loves, it's human master's touch, death in the attic after it is made obsolete. Of course, if you call anything poetry--graffiti and commercials and random thoughts flitting through the head of an armadillo--then sure a computer can write poetry.

cam said...

Interesting thoughts. Does having sentience equal to having a soul?

gel(Emerald Eyes) said...

interesting discussion
software aside, I'm for the human touch in writing poetry
Yes, is a scam as far as the American League of Pen Women and others have warned. Shame, though, that it ropes in so many...