Who’s to say a robot can’t be a poet?

By Sky Xu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/24 13:48:39

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT


It almost seems that there isn't a day that goes by without some news somewhere about the advancement of artificial intelligence and how humans are losing to machines in one way or another. They are crushing the professional chess players. And now in China, a collection of poems "written" by Xiaobing or Little Ice, a robot developed by Beijing-based Microsoft Research Asia, was published recently.

While many exclaimed in awe and admiration of the machine's ability to beat humans in board games, the thought of machines writing "poems" infuriated some "real" poets.

One poet tweeted angrily on Weibo that "robots could never write a good poem. Poetry comes from the human soul. Robots do not have the right to write poems nor can they write good ones."

The poet's outrage is understandable. After all, chess and poetry are not the same. One is considered to be about logic and the other, emotion, which has long been considered an exclusively human characteristic. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to think that robots can be more logical than humans. But literature?

"Poetry is not simply constructing a sentence, much less twisting a sentence so that nobody understands. That's what the stupid fake poets do, which suits robots," ranted the poet.

He concluded by calling people who blindly believe in the power of technology stupid.

It sounds to me like nothing more than a poet's desperate attempt at redeeming his ego. According to the news, Little Ice has published all kinds of poems since February, using 27 aliases, and a couple of them were accepted and published in journals. Nobody seemed to notice that a robot wrote them.

What is poetry to begin with? Of course, one can argue for its emotional and aesthetic effect, and when we call something "poetic," it's usually describing something romantic or with emotional beauty. But in the end, it's just verses.

I don't pretend to get poetry. To me, a lot of the contemporary Chinese poems read either like bad grammar or plain sentences broken off at unusual places. But when I read some of the poems written by Little Ice, I can't help thinking to myself that they actually sound romantic and poetic or, at least, my perception of what poetic verses should read like.

So, if the poem created by a robot is nothing more than a twisted sentence, then that probably speaks more about the masters it is learning from than about the technology.

Poetry in China, especially contemporary poetry, has long been considered to be out of touch, incomprehensible, and more flair than content. It is like the human poets have no real emotion to express, or if they do, they aren't expressing it in a way that is accessible to readers.

So, if readers can't tell the difference between a poem written by humans and one written by robots, then it seems to me that it's the human poets who have some self-reflection to do.

This article was published on the Global Times Metropolitan section Two Cents page, a space for reader submissions, including opinion, humor and satire. The ideas expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent the position of the Global Times.


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