Maia Brown

Artificial Intelligence and Poetry

Of course, if we’re going to make computers as much like us as possible, it’s inevitable we’re going to explore the question – can AI have original and creative thoughts?

In the millennia since we first started making portraits of ourselves, one of the most impressive feats of human ingenuity is artificial intelligence, or AI. Since the 1950s, AI has been our attempt to replicate human intelligence in computers. To date, it’s covered everything from simple tasks such as recognising faces and keeping shopping lists to complex tasks like delivering healthcare and driving our cars. We even use it to chat and entertain ourselves.

Of course, if we’re going to make computers as much like us as possible, it’s inevitable we’re going to explore the question – can AI have original and creative thoughts? Poetry, and art in general, is one of our vehicles for such thought, and a practice we consider distinguishes us from other animals – and in the 21st century – from computers too. 

AI has been trained to create convincing poetry, to varying levels of success.

The ‘humanness’ level of an AI programme is often measured by its ability to create convincing art, and to use language in fluid ways, including poetry. This makes sense, as an intimate grasp on the subtleties of feeling conveyed through the language of a poem is something we consider to be unique to humans. Nowadays though, AI has been trained to create convincing poetry, to varying levels of success, with recent attempts often passing as having been written by a human. 

Programmes such as Google’s Verse by Verse allow you to co-write a poem in the style of one of 22 poets, including Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. It does this by reading and mimicking from a database of the poet’s work, so it’s not entirely original. In fact, all AI ‘poets’ need a database to work from – they can’t create poetry out of nothing. 

It’s true that both humans and AI take from what they know to create something new.

But then, as humans, it could be argued we also need a ‘database’. We feed our minds from a million sources, experiences and books, so is the process that different? Well, yes. It is true that both humans and AI take from what they know to create something new. Human poets draw from material in their lives, and AI draws from its database. But the difference is that for humans, these experiences are lived and experienced in the real world through the senses. What’s more, for humans there is intent – a fundamental motivation to produce art and search for ourselves within it. At this stage, computers definitely aren’t motivated in this way. To paraphrase a truth that Picasso pointed out in the 1960s, “Computers are useless – they can only give us answers.”

AI is a carefully crafted mirror for humans…

All that said, I still find the idea of AI poetry fascinating, and in some ways, the results are analogous to human dreams – we spend our waking hours collecting and storing sounds, thoughts, sensations, emotional responses and images, then during REM sleep, we remix them like crazy as our subconscious tries to make sense of itself. This results in nonsensical versions of things we’ve taken from the real world, just like AI remixing what is fed into its database. If you give it Blake, it writes a version of Blake. If you give it all of humanity to work from, it writes a version of humanity. AI is a carefully crafted mirror for humans, getting better each year at showing us not only a version of what we are, but what we value in ourselves as a species. Just as our dreams might reveal what is floating in our subconscious, perhaps this self-constructed reflection of humanity is a legitimate portrait of us, written in our own poetry. 

On that note, let’s look at some examples of AI poetry from RKCP by Ray Kurzweil. You can decide what you think, or feel, for yourself. 

Page (after reading poems by Wendy Dennis)

Sashay down the page
through the lioness
nestled in my soul

Moon Child (after reading Kathleen Frances Wheeler)

Crazy moon child
Hide from your coffin
To spite your doom

These are the examples I liked best, ones that offer up multiple meanings and images, but there are many more which are not as convincing. It says on the RKCP website that the software is good at creating a few lines or phrases but is weaker when maintaining a theme or idea throughout a whole poem. So, being better at shorter poetics than longer poems, perhaps these AI haikus can be a useful tool for human poets to generate imagery and ideas to enrich their work. Rather than thinking of AI ‘poets’ as something made to replace or surpass human ones, we can instead consider them as a useful tool to the human creative process.

Here’s another example of AI poetry, taken from the Guardian website:

and soon I am staring out again,
begin to practise my words, expecting my word
will come. it will not. the wind is calling.
my friend is near, I hear his breath. his breath
is not the air. he touches me again with his hands
and tells me I am growing old, he says, far old.
we travel across an empty field in my heart.
there is nothing in the dark, I think, but he.
I close my eyes and try to remember what I was.
he says it was an important and interesting day,
because I put in his hands one night
the box of light that had been a tree.

Most of this poem lacks the strength or clarity we come to expect from human poets, but look at the last few lines – there’s something beautiful and intriguing in the image of ‘a box of light that had been in a tree’.

Although AI does not have our human motivation to process and depict itself, the poetry it produces is still something worth contemplation. Akin to a human-made ‘found’ or ‘blackout’ poem, AI poetry works with the limitations of what already exists to produce something new, and whilst certainly created from existing materials, the outcome remains original in its own right. Perhaps AI art is here to remind us that although we may not know the perspective or intent of the artist – it doesn’t necessarily stop the work from containing creative merit. In both cases, human or AI, surely the true magic is the richness found by the humans who read it. 

A writing prompt:

Take two random lines from a book, two from a website, and two from something instructive such as a manual, recipe, or label. Whilst collecting them, don’t worry about choosing ones that go together, or, if you want, you could choose subjects that have something in common.
Then, free write for ten minutes using these sentences as jumping off points or seeing if you can form something by using all the lines. A tip would be to type them all up so it’s easier to freely move words around. Use the exercise to explore connections or tensions between ideas, take words from one line, pull ideas from another, and make something in the space created by them. If it’s rubbish, don’t worry – I assure you, you’ll still be miles ahead of AI in terms of authentic expression.

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