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Robot Wins Jeopardy, But Can It Write Poetry?

Writing good poetry may one day be a final exam of sorts for an artificial intelligence.
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Watson's impressive debut on Jeopardy this past week got me wondering if there has ever been a serious attempt to program an artificial intelligence to write good poetry. I don't mean just throwing together a proper meter and rhyme scheme -- that seems easy enough. I'm talking about an attempt to create a machine that "understands" how to manipulate language to convey freshness, wisdom and emotional depth.

So I searched the web for Watson's poetic doppelganger, imagining a blinking, spinny sphere that, out of principle, hasn't sold out to the national TV spotlight, and that perhaps wears a beret. The internet is, in fact, rife with crude programs called poetry generators that randomly feed a user-supplied library of descriptive words into set poetic forms. But these generators feel far, far closer to an Excel Spreadsheet than they do Shakespeare. One version, a love poetry generator, required that I fill out a list of my favorite flowers, animals and colors before it proclaimed that I was "in search of the magnificent black and mystical tomcat of love," which, embarrassingly, I am.

I also soon discovered that an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" explored this very question. The android Data tried his hand at the art, taking a cue from Christopher Smart and writing an ode to his cat. While Data's work was technically proficient, it lacked emotional depth and bored the Enterprise crew. Of course, that didn't deter "Star Trek" fans from giving Data's "Ode to Spot" its very own website.

I eventually discovered that a clever man named Geoff Peters created something called the Google Poetry Robot (unaffiliated with Google). The Google Poetry Robot -- I'll just call it GPR - requires that you be its muse, and type a few words of inspiration into a text box. It feeds these inspiring words into a simple algorithm and collects phrases that are somewhat related from around the web, resulting in "poems." In a very rudimentary way, it creates -- just not in a very good way. The results generally read like this: "Modern music really is bad for Pets and people. Plants don't need Nuclear bombs for our government and nonprofit institutions in Colorado via a Godzilla meets South Park 50s horror film Orchestra."

But GPR can, occasionally, be intriguingly poetic, as in the line, "I am sitting here. I want to become Japan," which is really what a meditative robot poet might write, if you think about it.

On his website, Peters asks the pertinent questions about GPR's work: "Is it poetry? Is it nonsense? If you didn't know that these writings were created by anonymous people, with the aid of a robot, would you think they consist of the ravings of a crazed lunatic?" The short answers to which are "no," "yes," and "oh, absolutely, yes." I don't mean to be too hard on GPR. It does have some qualities one commonly finds in poets: It speaks multiple languages, it swears a lot and it doesn't like to use commas.

Sadly, when I went to play muse to GPR myself, it was offline. It's possible that it has taken a day job as a technical writer, or that it has sold out completely and gone to law school. Lucky for us, much of GPR's work is archived on the Robot Poetry Blog, which has poems dating back to 2005. There is also a site where you can hear GPR's poetry read by a robot voice -- you know, to get the full robot effect.

So it seems that I'm more likely to stumble on that black and mystical tomcat of love than I am a robot poet. Writing good poetry may one day be a final exam of sorts for an artificial intelligence, but when you consider that 25 scientists worked on Watson for four years, and it still thought Toronto was a U.S. city, I think it's safe to say that it won't be picking up the digital quill anytime soon. Though now that IBM has bested Gary Kasparov at chess and Ken Jennings at Jeopardy, maybe they'll take on the challenge. When they do, I think "Byron" has a nice ring to it.