May 1, 2018

What rhymes with 1337?: Computer poets are making headlines again


Poet of the future.

the sun is singing
the sound is raining
i will catch you
don’t look at you
you are the sky
you’re beginning

So wrote the great poet 12P-GAN w/ Dp, according to a paper published last week by four researchers based in Japan. Their goal was the creation of a system capable of fully automated ekphrasis — or, as they put it, of the “automatic generation of natural language from images… for automatic poetry creation.” Cool.

We wrote about literature composed by computers late last year, when the geniuses of Botnik Studios set the controls for the heart of Harry Potter and let ’er rip. (They’re still at it, by the way — most recently, they’ve published a few pages of a computer-written Inifinity War screenplay, in which Jimi Hendrix says, “Yeah, I’ve got me a venus witch dream for my sweet angel Captain America,” which is excellent.)

The researchers behind this new study, three from Kyoto University and one from Microsoft Research Asia, seem to have been aiming, ahem, higher. Their seriousness is obvious, insofar as much of the paper is given over to utterly incomprehensible math-talk:

Yes, naturally.

But it’s not all triangle-thingy squiggly-equals Greek-letter-thingy. As the paper explains, this work represents the first known attempt to design an algorithm for generating poems based on particular images (how do you spell “radiant sunset” in hexadecimal?) “in an automatical fashion.” The paper also includes the results of a Turing Test, in which the automatical bards made a strong, sublime showing.

The impressive and weird technological development quickly unleashed surprising smarm from a number of human commentators. At FuturismDan Robitzky (whose name in this context seems… suspect) calls the computer’s offerings “pretty nonsensical, even beyond the sorts of nonsense you’d find in a college literary magazine.” Notwithstanding the fact that college literary magazines are usually just fine and sometimes pretty wonderful, this advances a strangely incurious perspective on the relationship between “poetry” and “nonsense.” Meanwhile, at QriusPrarthana Mitra is also kind of a downer, working in awkward one-liners and advancing some furiously broad assertions. “The only line separating artificial intelligence from human intellect, is the former’s inadequacy when it comes to artistic creation”? Good to know! Take my capacitor, please.

It’s a shame that more effort isn’t being made to give these poems a fair hearing. It takes some real cognitive gymnastics to call this piece of perfectly boring imagism “absurdist,” as Mitra does:

the sun is a beautiful thing
in silence is drawn
between the trees
only the beginning of light

This could, in fact, be one of Rupi Kaur’s more interesting pieces. And the fact that it wasn’t written by a human being could be an opportunity to reconsider what “writing” is, to gain some perspective on the profoundly limited utility of viewing literature as falling somewhere on a continuum from “good” to “bad,” to ask deep questions about language, consciousness, and art.

The Robo-Pushkin who wakes while you sleep and lives only to people your nightmares could not be reached for comment.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.