Can a Computer Write Poetry? | Oscar Schwartz | [email protected]

Translator: Cynthia Betubiza
Reviewer: TED Translators admin 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. You’re not going to have long to read because we haven’t got long
to do this speech. Have a go, start reading. Poem 1: Little Fly / Thy summer’s play, /
My thoughtless hand / Has brush’d away. A 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. But most of you got that right,
it’s probably a little bit easy. 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 okay 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. And wearing material / Reasons
for wearing material. / Give pleasure. 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 And sunrise grows so near /
sunrise grows so near That we can touch the despair and /
frenzied hope of all the ages 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 and 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 saw 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. That is to say, the category of the human
is unstable. 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 kind of, 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)


  • frank o hara is one of my favourite human poets too!

  • Maia Jintcharadze

    "very human poet" :))

  • I get a lot in 10 years of life, but I am still at the same place.
    Many people touch me, but I am not attractive or am I? It’s very strange.
    There are all day 64 thoughts continuously through my head.
    I can't walk away. I don't have legs.I don't wear a sweater, but I still have electric shocks.
    They have to do surgery in me to make me better.
    I do see much of the world, but at the same time I don't. What is happiness?
    I know a lot but what is the meaning of freedom?

    There are certain things I will never understand of humans and life.
    For example, the additional meaning of poetry.

  • computer just take a poetry examples and a text . then he gives us a bunch of products. And this is not writing. The meaning of writing a poet doesnt mean cheating. please dont say computer (or the program that you make) write a poet . i know you know much more than me about artificial intelligence. however dont trick people saying we made a computer which writes poetry just because you want to draw attention. please just dont fool yourself in that . you should focus on other a.i. subjects. because you have potential. sorry for my bad english…

  • I watched this today on an iPad in a Sam's Club and then later I watched the episode of Star Trek: TNG where Data has a poetry reading about his cat. Synchronous!


  • native speaker English teacher

    Wanna hear the poems so can participate..

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