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Mana’s Musing: Could a Robot Write Poetry?

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LAURA YOO, A Member of HOCOPOLITSO Board, writes MANA’S MUSINGS for the second week of each month on the HOCOPOLITSO BLOG.

LAURA YOO, a member of HOCOPOLITSO Board, writes MANA’S MUSINGS for the second week of each month on the HOCOPOLITSO BLOG.

Recently, I watched a movie called Ex Machina. It’s a science-fiction film about two people: Nathan is the creator of an Artificial Intelligence named Ava and Caleb is the man called upon to do the Turing Test, which is “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human” (Wikipedia).

Like many movies and stories about AI, Ex Machina ultimately asks “What does it mean to be human?”  The movie defines this difference between machine and human as self-awareness and consciousness. But the true question, of course, is this: What does that self-awareness or consciousness look like?  The movie uses the example of a chess player: A chess playing AI may have all the possible moves in its data but is it aware of the game or itself as a player of that game?  In another movie about artificial intelligence, Transcendence, the “self awareness problem” is also at the heart of the issue. When a super computer named PINN is asked to demonstrate its self-awareness, PINN asks the humans “How do YOU know you’re self aware?” Of course, the humans are stumped.

After watching Ex Machina, I got to thinking about this question about what makes us human, and I thought about Ava’s ability to create. She draws. At first, she makes random marks on paper that do not resemble any object. Then, Caleb encourages her to draw objects and she draws them very well, including a portrait of Caleb. She can draw what she sees but can she create something new?  Could Ava write poetry?

But first, I think I have to start with “What is poetry?” If we can define this, then perhaps we can try to see if Ava could create it. There are many descriptions of poetry but to define it is quite challenging.  The dictionary definition for poetry – “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” – is most unsatisfying to most of us, I think.  Perhaps poetry is something that defies definition.

Nonetheless, many poets have penned famous lines about poetry that help us know poetry when we see one.

For example, William Wordsworth so famously wrote that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  And Percy Shelley claimed “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”  How do you think Ava’s capacity for poetry would fare against these measures?

Let’s take “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, for example.

2015-09-01 10.02.30

Could (or would?) Ava create the line-breaks that emphasize “We” at the end of each line? Those specific rhymes? That rhythm? What about the very idea of writing a poem? Brooks says that she saw these guys playing pool at the “Golden Shovel” and wondered how they must see themselves.  In Brooks’ imagination, they think they are “real cool.” Especially given that “cool” is difficult to define at any given cultural moment, I wonder if Ava could come to this conclusion about the Pool Players and create a poem to represent her thought-experience.  Here’s another take: Two AIs might come up with the exact same poem about observing the same pool players at the Golden Shovel, but I think only Gwendolyn Brooks and no other poet could have created “We Real Cool” just as it is. I mean, just listen to the way she reads it.

In a broader sense, what about creativity? For example, Edward de Bono, who coined the term “lateral thinking,” says this about creativity:

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”

Do we think Ava could do this?  Certainly an AI could be programmed with all the necessary data – say, all poems ever written by every poet in human history – which would serve as “established patterns.”  Could she come up with something that has not existed before, see something that’s missing from her data and create it?

What about this claim about creativity by Frank Goble, a prominent champion of “character education”?

“Because of their courage, their lack of fear, they (creative people) are willing to make silly mistakes. The truly creative person is one who can think crazy; such a person knows full well that many of his great ideas will prove to be worthless. The creative person is flexible; he is able to change as the situation changes, to break habits, to face indecision and changes in conditions without undue stress. He is not threatened by the unexpected as rigid, inflexible people are.”

Goble clearly identifies the act of creation as distinctly human here. Not just human – but specifically the human ability to make sense out of chaos. As a character in Transcendence says, “Human emotion. It can contain illogical conflicts.” Along these lines, I also like what Christopher Morley says about poetry: “The courage of the poet is to keep ajar the door that leads into madness.”

Maybe I’m drawn to these descriptions that allude to all that is disorderly because then I feel that I can keep Ava out of it. Surely, an AI could not possibly deal in or deal with madness, chaos, crazy, and mistakes? Surely a computer like Ava is all about logic, order, pattern, and all that makes sense.  As you can see, I’m biased. And really what I want is to say is that poetry is a uniquely human activity. I don’t want AIs to appropriate poetry.

Just as AI movies are ultimately concerned not with science, machine, or robots but rather with humanity, my little musing here is really not about whether or not a robot could write poetry but really about… What is poetry? 

The more I ponder this question and go from one answer to the next question, I feel myself getting sucked into a black hole (watch Intersteller) and getting lost.  Time to stop. And go read a good poem like this one:

“Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand 

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.


I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

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