The robots are quickly and surely coming for our jobs, and we've comforted ourselves thus far with a palliative that goes something like this: They can't do our creative work. They won't do our journalism or make our art or write our poetry. Except that the startup Narrative Science has $6 million to execute its human-free reporting, I've seen firsthand an automated 3D printer artistically render the apocalypse, and now, the most unlikely frontier is being breached: Robots are writing poetry. And they're doing it better than most humans, too.
Software programs and hardwired machines alike are wrangling their way into our sacred sphere of abstract language art. Not just the rampant poetic twitter bots, either—there are free-ranging poet Roombas and Shakespeare-mining algorithms, too.
This robot, for instance, is programmed to write poems with sand, and to take so long composing them that the first line is gone by the time it finishes dusting down the last. Skryf, as its creator, the Dutch artist Gijs van Bon, calls it, is an experiment with the form of poetry, not its content. The artist writes the poetry in advance, and feeds it to the robot.
"Once I've finished writing, I walk the same way back but it's all destroyed. It's ephemeral, it's just for this moment and afterwards it's left to the public and to the wind," he says in this piece produced by Dezeen.
But Twitter, the 140-character social media playground is probably the arena where we're most likely to encounter poetry written by robots. It's also where bots themselves are writing the poems, and have been for years. After all, before it was unmasked as a lousy PR stunt, Horse_ebooks had tantalized us all. And there are plenty of worthy, legitimate experiments in automated twitter poetry. @Pentametron is maybe the best.
Max Read profiled the poetical twitter bot in Gawker, where he explained that Pentametron "uses an algorithm to find and retweet rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter—the ten-syllable alternating-stress meter used in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets—and publish them in 14-line sonnets on Pentametron.com." The program was designed by the software engineer Ranjit Bhatnagar, who runs it on a "cheap server" used explicitly for digital poetry.
Here's the example he used to illustrate one such finished work, culled from tweets of everyday Twitter users:
It pretty nicely captures the cadence and sensibility of modern life, right?
It's especially interesting since Pentametron is artificially creating compelling poetry from explicitly human-authored sentiments. Yet Twitter bots like this only mark the entry point into what we might as well call roboetry. More sophisticated software can be put in service of writing poetry, too; like SwiftKey, a machine learning algorithm that typically teaches Android to adapt to users' behavior and helps correct their touchscreen text entries. MIT phD candidate J. Nathan Matias taught it Shakespeare instead.
“To write good poetry, I needed to know more than what words might come next," Matias told TechCrunch. "I needed to anticipate future predictions—what predictions would be made later if I choose this word over that? So I created this touchscreen interface to visualize future predictions for poetry writing."
According to TechCrunch, that interface, called Swift-Speare, "extends the core machine-learning technology to specifically aid poetry creation." Eventually, he started getting results, like this, a Shakespearean sonnet co-authored by a robot:
When I in dreams behold thy fairest shade
Whose shade in dreams doth wake the sleeping morn
The daytime shadow of my love betray’d
Lends hideous night to dreaming’s faded form
Were painted frowns to gild mere false rebuff
Then shoulds’t my heart be patient as the sands
For nature’s smile is ornament enough
When thy gold lips unloose their drooping bands
As clouds occlude the globe’s enshrouded fears
Which can by no astron’my be assail’d
Thus, thyne appearance tears in atmospheres
No fond perceptions nor no gaze unveils
Disperse the clouds which banish light from thee
For no tears be true, until we truly see
Other examples abound: A bot that mines New York Times articles for haikus. Designed by the Times resident software architect, it spins haikus like this from articles like “The Fear of Surrendering Again,” it produced this particularly poetic gem:
He has a mind as
fascinating to me as
the city itself.
The point is getting clearer: These are pretty good poems. They're surprising, moving, weird, even a little touching; It's actually good poetry.
And we're reaching the point where the physical and softwarical robot poets might as well join forces, as Skryf and this, a typing Roboet project, demonstrates.
Or the Kuka bot that is scrawling out the bible on paper, IRL.
Then again, paper is increasingly esoteric, and in the near-future, if we read poetry at all, we'll be reading it online. And much of it will be written by robots, even if we're still writing the programs that write the robo-poems. It's certainly proof that almost nothing people create can any longer be considered to exist behind some imaginary humans-only firewall—jobs, ideas, art—our machines are moving us, so we'd better get comfortable. The future where robots read us poems is already here, if we're ready to listen up.