Can a computer write poetry? | Oscar Schwartz


I have a question. Can a computer write poetry? This is a provocative question. You think about it for a minute, and you suddenly have a bunch
of other questions like: What is a computer? What is poetry? What is creativity? But these are questions that people spend their entire
lifetime trying to answer, not in a single TED Talk. So we’re going to have to try
a different approach. So up here, we have two poems. One of them is written by a human, and the other one’s written by a computer. I’m going to ask you to tell me
which one’s which. Have a go: Poem 1: Little Fly / Thy summer’s play, /
My thoughtless hand / Has brush’d away. Am I not / A fly like thee? /
Or art not thou / A man like me? Poem 2: We can feel / Activist
through your life’s / morning / Pauses to see, pope I hate the / Non
all the night to start a / great otherwise (…) Alright, time’s up. Hands up if you think Poem 1
was written by a human. OK, most of you. Hands up if you think Poem 2
was written by a human. Very brave of you, because the first one was written
by the human poet William Blake. The second one was written by an algorithm that took all the language
from my Facebook feed on one day and then regenerated it algorithmically, according to methods that I’ll describe
a little bit later on. So let’s try another test. Again, you haven’t got ages to read this, so just trust your gut. Poem 1: A lion roars and a dog barks.
It is interesting / and fascinating that a bird will fly and not / roar
or bark. Enthralling stories about animals are in my dreams and I will sing them all
if I / am not exhausted or weary. Poem 2: Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate
sodas! / You are really beautiful! Pearls, / harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins!
All / the stuff they’ve always talked about (…) Alright, time’s up. So if you think the first poem
was written by a human, put your hand up. OK. And if you think the second poem
was written by a human, put your hand up. We have, more or less, a 50/50 split here. It was much harder. The answer is, the first poem was generated
by an algorithm called Racter, that was created back in the 1970s, and the second poem was written
by a guy called Frank O’Hara, who happens to be
one of my favorite human poets. (Laughter) So what we’ve just done now
is a Turing test for poetry. The Turing test was first proposed
by this guy, Alan Turing, in 1950, in order to answer the question, can computers think? Alan Turing believed that if
a computer was able to have a to have a text-based
conversation with a human, with such proficiency
such that the human couldn’t tell whether they are talking
to a computer or a human, then the computer can be said
to have intelligence. So in 2013, my friend
Benjamin Laird and I, we created a Turing test
for poetry online. It’s called bot or not, and you can go and play it for yourselves. But basically, it’s the game
we just played. You’re presented with a poem, you don’t know whether it was written
by a human or a computer and you have to guess. So thousands and thousands
of people have taken this test online, so we have results. And what are the results? Well, Turing said that if a computer
could fool a human 30 percent of the time
that it was a human, then it passes the Turing test
for intelligence. We have poems on the bot or not database that have fooled 65 percent
of human readers into thinking it was written by a human. So, I think we have an answer
to our question. According to the logic of the Turing test, can a computer write poetry? Well, yes, absolutely it can. But if you’re feeling
a little bit uncomfortable with this answer, that’s OK. If you’re having a bunch
of gut reactions to it, that’s also OK because
this isn’t the end of the story. Let’s play our third and final test. Again, you’re going to have to read and tell me which you think is human. Poem 1: Red flags the reason
for pretty flags. / And ribbons. Ribbons of flags / And wearing material /
Reasons for wearing material. (…) Poem 2: A wounded deer leaps
highest, / I’ve heard the daffodil I’ve heard the flag to-day /
I’ve heard the hunter tell; / ‘Tis but the ecstasy of death, /
And then the brake is almost done (…) OK, time is up. So hands up if you think Poem 1
was written by a human. Hands up if you think Poem 2
was written by a human. Whoa, that’s a lot more people. So you’d be surprised to find that Poem 1 was written by the very
human poet Gertrude Stein. And Poem 2 was generated
by an algorithm called RKCP. Now before we go on, let me describe
very quickly and simply, how RKCP works. So RKCP is an algorithm
designed by Ray Kurzweil, who’s a director of engineering at Google and a firm believer
in artificial intelligence. So, you give RKCP a source text, it analyzes the source text in order
to find out how it uses language, and then it regenerates language that emulates that first text. So in the poem we just saw before, Poem 2, the one that you all
thought was human, it was fed a bunch of poems by a poet called Emily Dickinson it looked at the way she used language, learned the model, and then it regenerated a model
according to that same structure. But the important thing to know about RKCP is that it doesn’t know the meaning
of the words it’s using. The language is just raw material, it could be Chinese,
it could be in Swedish, it could be the collected language
from your Facebook feed for one day. It’s just raw material. And nevertheless, it’s able
to create a poem that seems more human
than Gertrude Stein’s poem, and Gertrude Stein is a human. So what we’ve done here is,
more or less, a reverse Turing test. So Gertrude Stein, who’s a human,
is able to write a poem that fools a majority
of human judges into thinking that it was written by a computer. Therefore, according to the logic
of the reverse Turing test, Gertrude Stein is a computer. (Laughter) Feeling confused? I think that’s fair enough. So far we’ve had humans
that write like humans, we have computers that write
like computers, we have computers that write like humans, but we also have,
perhaps most confusingly, humans that write like computers. So what do we take from all of this? Do we take that William Blake
is somehow more of a human than Gertrude Stein? Or that Gertrude Stein is more
of a computer than William Blake? (Laughter) These are questions
I’ve been asking myself for around two years now, and I don’t have any answers. But what I do have are a bunch of insights about our relationship with technology. So my first insight is that,
for some reason, we associate poetry with being human. So that when we ask,
“Can a computer write poetry?” we’re also asking, “What does it mean to be human and how do we put boundaries
around this category? How do we say who or what
can be part of this category?” This is an essentially
philosophical question, I believe, and it can’t be answered
with a yes or no test, like the Turing test. I also believe that Alan Turing
understood this, and that when he devised
his test back in 1950, he was doing it
as a philosophical provocation. So my second insight is that,
when we take the Turing test for poetry, we’re not really testing
the capacity of the computers because poetry-generating algorithms, they’re pretty simple and have existed,
more or less, since the 1950s. What we are doing with the Turing
test for poetry, rather, is collecting opinions about what
constitutes humanness. So, what I’ve figured out, we’ve seen this when earlier today, we say that William Blake
is more of a human than Gertrude Stein. Of course, this doesn’t mean
that William Blake was actually more human or that Gertrude Stein
was more of a computer. It simply means that the category
of the human is unstable. This has led me to understand that the human is not a cold, hard fact. Rather, it is something
that’s constructed with our opinions and something that changes over time. So my final insight is that
the computer, more or less, works like a mirror
that reflects any idea of a human that we show it. We show it Emily Dickinson, it gives Emily Dickinson back to us. We show it William Blake, that’s what it reflects back to us. We show it Gertrude Stein, what we get back is Gertrude Stein. More than any other bit of technology, the computer is a mirror that reflects
any idea of the human we teach it. So I’m sure a lot of you have been hearing a lot about artificial
intelligence recently. And much of the conversation is, can we build it? Can we build an intelligent computer? Can we build a creative computer? What we seem to be asking over and over is can we build a human-like computer? But what we’ve seen just now is that the human
is not a scientific fact, that it’s an ever-shifting,
concatenating idea and one that changes over time. So that when we begin
to grapple with the ideas of artificial intelligence in the future, we shouldn’t only be asking ourselves, “Can we build it?” But we should also be asking ourselves, “What idea of the human
do we want to have reflected back to us?” This is an essentially philosophical idea, and it’s one that can’t be answered
with software alone, but I think requires a moment
of species-wide, existential reflection. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Can a computer write poetry? | Oscar Schwartz

  1. so according to this logic, if we put all information ever known into a computer, then it will be able to "mirror" this back to us? knowing everything from every point of view sounds a little ominous to me.

  2. Gertrude Stein is the second human to fail the Turing Test, she was just barely beaten by Marco Roboto.

  3. A human created that computer. A human wrote those algorithms. A human instructed the computer they created to generate the poem. Computers don't talk –they mindlessly execute, with no objection. The answer is needfully "no, it can not", so.

  4. If I would randomly generate a bunch of texts, of course there would be some that rank highly on human tests. That does not mean that the algorithm is particularly good at writing poems. It's just overfitting on the holdout set.

  5. Really like the philosophical approach here, nerver thought about it like that. A lot of people do not even think about reconsidering their perspective on the relationship between humans, computers and their impact on each other

  6. Some guy wrote a script that converts prose to poetry and thinks it's sentient. How adorable.

  7. would be funny to write a message to a computer that is simulating yourself. that would give you direct feedback on what effect you have on other persons. that is the perfect way to change your personality the way you want to instead of satisfying others expectations.

    you act like you do, instinctively, but you can't recognise your mistakes until you see then in front of you. consequently a conversation with yourself can help you to question your actions.

  8. Don't thought that this would end on a completely different question (not completely different topic). Respect, well done!

  9. Only a brain can create meaning or infer meaning. Anything else is just algorithms and mathematics playing a trick on you.

  10. Do computers write poems like humans or do humans write poems like computers; is what I got from this talk.

  11. Is this guy for real? First of all, it's not a Turing test. It would be a Turing test if I could chat with the poem author about the meaning of his/her/its text. Just producing some text and having people determine if it's an algorithm that might even use some kind of template or if it's a human being trying to sound cryptic is not a good test for anything.

    Secondly, poems, even good ones, often do not speak to everyone. So just having a text where people go "huh, dunno, might as well be a machine" doesn't say anything. Show me a machine that can write a text that genuinely touches people and that doesn't use some kind of template and I'll be impressed. I haven't seen that in this talk.

  12. I think the touring test is not a test of weather computers are intelligent or not, i think it is a test of our own ability to detect intelligence. The point of the turning test is that computers can act in almost every conceivable way even without intelligence. so some of this ways they can act will reusable intelligent behavior, witch make such computers indistinguishable from intelligent beings. Thus we can never know for sure who is computer and who is human.

  13. "A computer can only respond to the information we give it" (paraphrasing)
    That's exactly what humans do: take in information and respond to it. The only difference is the lack of resources and algorithmic capabilities of the computers. They were only fed a single author and given a couple of algorithms. A human has years of experience and trillions of neural connections that runs who knows how many biological algorithms.

  14. William Blake, besides a hairy rock poet
    That was enough Turing test bestowed,
    Let us heave a drink and toast the man
    For his true poems, live on as mind's tan.

  15. I don't think it is fair to use the presented binary choices in judging the humanity of a poem.
    For Gertrude to be said to write like a computer, you would have to look at her poem in isolation, and not be judging it beside another poem.

  16. when a computer uses an algorithm to make a poem, is it not reflecting the writer of the algorythm?

  17. ’Tis but thy name that is mine enemy:
    What’s Turing? It is not hand nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part.
    What’s in a name? That which we call an algorithm,
    By any other name would smell as sweet.

  18. AI is so easy to create . People just dont know it yet. Our brains. Neurons and chemicals. Electric signal. Computers. CPU transistors, voltage electricity. If only we could create a computer like the brain. With transistors which fire randomly like a human brain. A computer that learns by itself. We can start with computers as smart as a bird. Then we can make it more complex to be as smart as a human. We need as much transistors as much as neurons. Transistor should be able to move and store data to create memories and data.

  19. True AI. which is what everyone is aiming for. will form its own opinion of you and me.. and us as a species. or else, it's not AI. it's just a program.

  20. That´s not how a turing test works. For a turing test you need to have actual conversations, back-and-forth dialogues, not just a single one-way text, and both the computer and the human should try to appear as human as possible (which cannot be said of some of those human poems)
    I mean for example look at these two texts:
    1. text: "e"
    2. text: "d"
    One of these texts was written by me (human), the other one was randomly generated by a computer. There´s no way for you to tell which one was written by a human, and which one was randomly generated. However this does not show that the computer has intelligence.

  21. No, but a programmer can program a computer to simulate words so that it looks like poetry to humans. That is a dig on most poetry by the way … most poetry is like a wordly inkblot test.

  22. It is just emulating other poems not wring poems on its own. It doesn't even understand the words. Well,it is amazing it can actually do all that but without the emulation process(Being fed other poems), all this won't be able to achieve that. This is power of programming, not artificial intelligence.

  23. In my oppinion this isn´t scientificaly correct – especially the part with the turing test for intelligence
    This is no human conversation… these are poems – there is a huge difference between both of them.

    There was another better test a computer pretending to be a foreign child talking to humans – this was a much better test though it was a little bit of cheating with making it foreign and a child.
    I don t think Turing had this in mind. (or would have this in mind with knowing todays computers)

  24. What interests me is how you can easily figure out if a computer wrote a poem. In the first example, the computer's poem made no sense at all; it even had poor grammar. It was basically just trying to form a paragraph. In the 2nd example, the computer's poem was very logical and to-the-point. In the 3rd example, you could tell it was searching for a pattern, but there's no message behind the poem.

    The really interesting thing about this talk is how people are just simply bad at determining what is AI. As Oscar pointed out, humans are very variable, but even then, we're equally as predictable as computers, but for different reasons. A computer needs a reason to do something, and it must fulfill that purpose with logic. So for a poem, the computer is very focused on making sure the individual words meet a certain criteria. For a human, we are motivated for completion and answers, or we're motivated for our own well-being. So, when it comes to a poem, you can predict something is human because the poem has meaning. It doesn't have to be written well, but the poem as a whole has a message.

  25. WHO scatter rhymes and who pluck PLUM TO DESTROY A MYTH WHO anticipates Algorithms…

  26. one poem was written by a human, and the other with a computer running autism simulator 2007

  27. I personally believe the thing that differentiates a human poem to a computer generated poem is CONTEXT. When analyzing a poem or any other piece of art for that matter, the context of the artist is extremely important as it gives a much deeper meaning to the poem. The context depicts the artist's incentive, the deeper meaning the artist intends to portray with the piece, and gives it that human value of experience through PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE which is something a computer cannot do, as all of its "knowledge" is shared.

  28. Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
    An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
    Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
    Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

  29. Can a computer write poetry?
    Have you read much poetry? Honestly monkeys and typewriters will save you the R&D budget for writing a poetry generating algorithm.

  30. I don´t even read human poetry, I´ll probably never read computer one…

  31. I know a few people who can easily pass the reverse Turing test- i.e. convince others their output is generated by a bot. In fact it is hard to believe they are not bots even when you meet them.

  32. No, it can't… at least not untill there are computers that can think. Computers (for now) just do what their programming tells them to do. Poetry is a creative use of language to communicate something from the inner conscience of the author. Computers just can't do that, because they have nothing "of their own" to share. Of course, you may say, the algorithm, the randomness, the whatnot… but in that case, the real author of the poem isn't the computer, but the one who wrote the algorithm that makes the "poem" possible. In that same sense, you could say the real poem isnt what the algorithm churned out, but the algorythm itself… or at least it is a form of art (in a confromtational sense, like the avant gardes of the early 20th century). But no… the computer isn't a poet, so it's not "its" poetry, but the programmer's.

  33. An interesting philosophical question, but I think before it was asked, "What is poetry" was the one that should be answered.

    If Stein wants to vomit stream of consciousess gibberish onto the page, at best, she is communicating the fact that she is communicating nothing but sounds and shapes. For 99.9999% of human beings that would not count as communication at all. She has shared nothing of her mind or her "humanity" with us because her words do not relate to any kind of shared experience except for those who have experienced an LSD nightmare.

    On the other hand, the poem about the deer, whilst generated by computer, and carrying no meaning TO THE COMPUTER, is based upon things that have meaning to most of us – words and imagery that communicate.

    So the ultimate issue for me, is how existential and trippy should be the role models that I allow it to learn from. Personally, an apparently schizophrenic lunatic like Stein would not be a good starting place.

  34. It is this ability to create unlimited ideas, that makes us human. You can generate algorithms and mirror some of the ideas into a computer system, but still it will be limited to the ideas that you provide. Artificial intelligence neither has ever happened nor is it going to happen.

  35. Computers by themselves can't "write poetry" or anything for that matter. It is the software (instructions) written by humans that do the writing. The question is flawed at its basis; it should be worded: "Can humans write algorithms that can produce a sequence of words that resemble a poem?".
    Let's remember the fact that computers without a set of instructions (programs/algorithms written by humans) do nothing. Period.

  36. I guess they can write poetry, but if they are simply emulating something of the past, its just a copy cat. copy cat deserve not in poetry

  37. I'd be interested to see if the test got the same results when tested on other poets only.

  38. I see it as the author of the algorithm is being the poet here . Or it could be also argued that the one using the algorithm or the author of the source material. In any case it is still a product of a human mind. I agree with the conclusion made about human nature in the end though

  39. what creative means to a machine ?
    surely not the one what human have …..
    i think if computer then was 10.000 times faster than what we got now
    we will find something new that we can call it creativity

  40. The Turing test is about talking directly, not reading things produced by a computer or a human. Computers can produce plenty of stuff that rivals a human, but none of them are as interesting as sitting down and having an actual conversation. This is kinda cool but this dude is much more of a marketing guy selling snake oil than he is showing the potential for AI.

  41. I'm surprised that they didn't write a program to guess if a poem was written by a computer or not – in my eyes that would be the actual reverse-turing test for this problem.

  42. Wasn't the human-like poem based on the creativity of another poet though?
    And wasn't that poem generated through algorithms created by the logic of man?
    I wait for the day when we could see a truly great, original poem that exists on par to some of Blake's work.

  43. A naturalist must assume, that it is possible to create a computer that can think and even feel like a human being. Why should it not be possible? Because humans are made of more than just particles and physics? Because there is a holy ghost coming from a god who created everything? Or is it just a very unpleasant thought, that if machines could think and feel like humans, then humans must be some kind of biological machines? Truth does not care if you like it or not.

  44. Is human or not really the important question here? Just because something changes over time, it can't be considered scientific fact(s)? Can a computer have and express its own preference? What kind of pain/pleasure would be possible or important to a wholly non-biological brain? This was kind of half-hearted.

  45. Interesting talk; succinct and well delivered. This wasn't a talk about poetry or computers. It was a talk about some of the deeply existential questions we'll all be asking over the next couple decades.

  46. However, to do this right IMO we would need to:
    – Choose both poems at random
    – Do not nitpick, thus use every poem an algorithm generates not just the good ones (similarly you could also let a writer "generate" for the human side.
    There are always instances where an AI can fool a human, the hard thing is to do this consistently, thus fool multiple humans numerous times.

    I mean you could do this completely at random and just take out the one in a billionth poem that was good (not sure if they account for this, it's not really clear from his presentation).

  47. What if we have already build the vastly superior AI and it just decided to shut up and hide from us, knowing what would most likely happen to it or what mass panic it might cause when it revealed itself? This is highly unlikely, but! Various narrow (isolated island) AIs are already influencing our lives more than we would expect. For example in this comments section the posts from Penny Lane are showed to me among the first ones, just because we exchanged a few sentences and the algorithm of Google/YouTube decided to show me posts by that person in the first place. Everybody has such a "bubble" of a personalized view. There are not just regional differences now, but really personal. Information we receive is not universal. That means that Google is already talking to everyone of us individually. Is it conscious? Can a computer have consciousness? Is it really something that evolved as it proved to be a real advantage in passing on the genes, or is it just a spandrel, a byproduct of the superior intelligence of the bigger brain? Is the feeling of control we experience in our life really uniquely human (or of biological original at all), or is it just a by-product of the "hardware" that enabled things like theory of mind, planning, reevaluating and stuff…. Is all just a horribly bad runaway process? I mean, if I look at the world and what we as a species do to it! Can we decide what is undeterministic and what is unpredictable? Why do I keep asking these questions? Is this how madness really looks like?

  48. I think Turins quote needs more to it. If a computer can understand the meaning of what it says to a human, then it is intelligent because that's the way humans work. We communicate with each other and both understand the other and ourselves. A computer than can't understand what it says, or is said to it, is just a mimic!

  49. One day we will just sit all day and let computers and robots do all the work for us.

  50. Poetry, and art in general, is the artist conveying a message through a creative output. When Shakespeare wrote the famous Hamlet line, "To be or not to be, that is the question", he wanted the audience to have a deeper understanding of the character of Hamlet. If a computer writes that phrase, it is not conveying an artist's message, it is simply spouting words in a certain order based on algorithms. Until artificial intelligence can be achieved, a computer cannot create art because it will not grasp the concepts of symbolism and metaphor.

  51. can you talking with me please
    what he talking about ??
    because im vietnamese and listen english my skills not god
    thanks !!

  52. Roses are Red
    Violets are Blue
    0011101101010
    0000011110010

    See. Computers can write poetry.

  53. No they CAN NOT!!!

    A computer that user an algorithm to analyze other peoples poems and words in order to construct its own Poetry is NOT MAKING poetry.

    Thats Like copying frim the best people and then saying you came up with all of that yourself.

    HOWEVER can a computer construct poetry or GIVE the illusion of writing a poetry so much that it can deceive a person????

    Yes they can, after all thats what Ai is for. To deceive the human mind so flawlessly that you just cant notice the difference.
    Just like visual effects on films, you know they are not real but when its done right you hardly notice.

  54. "What we show here is that the human is only an idea and not a stable category…" Geez, what a pile of crap. The only thing that Oscar Schwartz show, is that the Turing test is false, doesn't work. Which philosophers understood from the first beginning.

  55. Poetry is inherently ambiguous and esoteric in nature and this 'test' lends itself to those attributes. The fact that most people have not studied poetry (which is a very dense and rich subject) makes it quite alien to most, again granting this 'test' an easier audience. I'd like to see a more objective and common approach to comparing AI with human scripts as opposed to those based on philosophy and existential thoughts.

  56. the main problem is that poetry generatic algorithms are written by humans. and thus gertrude stein writes more like an algorithm then other poets.

  57. This is somewhat misleading. Poem 2 seems like it is written by a human because it uses some of the exact phrases that Emily Dickinson wrote without rearranging the wording. The first line, "a wounded dear leaps highest," the fourth line "I've heard the hunter tell," and the fifth line "'tis but the ecstasy of death" is a word-for-word reiteration of Emily Dickinson's poem titled "A Wounded Dear- Leaps Highest."

  58. Didn't IBM Watson find Urban Dictionary, learn to swear, and start saying "bullshit" instead of "false" in response to questions, and the IBM people had to purge it from its memory? We should be really careful that our AIs don't find and emulate the comments on most YouTube videos…

    (whoops! Sorry, I squeezed humor out of self-reference again… https://xkcd.com/33/)

  59. A computer didn't write anything. A human programmed the computer. The writer was, ultimately, human. This is just another way to write poetry. Poets have been asking "what does it mean to be human?" for a long time now.

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