Can artificial intelligence (AI) create good poetry? Tech-poet Aaron Mirck decided to find out. He put algorithms to work editing the poems from his poetry collection This Algorithm Ain’t Right, which is released on June 14th. He was amazed by the results: Not only did the AI poetry score more likes on Instagram, in some ways, it was superior to the original. Is this another sign that the machines are catching up with humans?
‘Black Mirror’ poetry
Mirck says that This Algorithm Ain’t Right was inspired by his years of working for tech companies. ‘I often work for start-ups, who focus on solving a specific problem with a clever app or platform. But lately I start to feel like our blind faith in technology means that we don’t give enough thought to its unpleasant side effects.’
Themes of a dystopian high-tech future have occasionally been explored in science fiction, like the Netflix series Black Mirror. ‘Is it really necessary to trade our privacy and autonomy for a smooth user experience? Are we really better off with the platform economy, online marketing and all-on-demand? With This Algorithm Ain’t Right, I wanted to put tech optimism into a broader perspective.’
AI experiment with GPT-3
Mirck says, ‘In this collection, I reflect on how technology affects our daily lives and raise the question of where humanity ends and technology begins. To draw the boundary between humans and machines more clearly, I wanted to discover whether an algorithm could create more popular poetry than I could.’
For this experiment, Mirck used the latest form of artificial intelligence, GPT-3. This language prediction model is capable of creating texts that appear in every way to have been created by humans rather than machines. ‘I had written these poems about algorithms, and decided to use an algorithm to edit them. Then, I shared them via Instagram’s algorithm. Instagram has a large community of poetry lovers who find each other through hashtags. That’s how I quickly got in touch with my target audience and was able to start experimenting with AI poetry.’
Mirck soon found that the AI poetry was sometimes even better received than his original work. ‘My own poems were longer than the AI versions. That makes them less attractive visually, which means they are less popular on Instagram. Also, when I “cut up” a poem into several images (12 likes), it didn’t always score better than the AI poetry (11 and 15 likes). So, sometimes the robot’s work was more popular than my own.’
Will machines make humans redundant?
The algorithm’s poems were not only more popular, sometimes they were even better than the originals. The AI created these lines: ‘You are a bus stop in the middle of a snow-covered desert / This year you have only been used once.’
‘Admittedly, it was my intention for those lines to allow for some ambiguity. It’s somewhere between absurdist imagery (you are a bus stop), improbable situations (a snow-covered desert) and a place you can imagine: a bus stop that is only used once a year. The snow in such a hot place as a desert underlines how lonely (in other words, cold) it must be there, but it’s also paradoxical. And that’s how the robot succeeds in creating poetry. I have to admit, this image is stronger than the original.’
‘This successful experiment reminds me that I am no longer needed myself, which is exactly what I try to express in my poems. As an abstract concept, that is still interesting: humankind being overtaken by the machine. It’s hardly reassuring when you create something, only to find out that you’re no longer needed.’