Artificial Poets May Take Us One Step Closer to Computational Creativity

Saturday, 19 December 2015 - 10:30AM
Artificial Intelligence
Saturday, 19 December 2015 - 10:30AM
Artificial Poets May Take Us One Step Closer to Computational Creativity

Could computers ever be truly creative? Sarah Harmon, a computer programmer at UC Santa Cruz, has made great strides in building an artificial intelligence that can write believably human poetry, which may be a step towards computational creativity.

Harmon's first poetry writing program, a Java program named OGDEN, was relatively simple, following predefined rules of grammar and linguistics in order to write lines that sound vaguely poetic. Poetry is extremely subjective, however, so in spite of the program's crudeness, its work was still accepted to her high school's literary magazine. 

Opening quote
"They accepted it," Harmon told Motherboard, "although they did say all these funny things about how abstract it was."
Closing quote

AI poetry
But Harmon aims to create an AI that is more sophisticated than a poetry generator that serves as a silly satire on postmodernism. She wants to build an AI that is creative, or at least as close to creative as is feasible with modern technologies. Ogden's rules and restrictions can be gleaned from reading just a few of its poems, and it would never surprise with any of its choices.

Opening quote
"As system creators, we want to be surprised too," Harmon said. "For me that's one of the most important features of creative systems."
Closing quote

Her newer system, called Figure8, doesn't write full poems, but rather snippets of figurative language such as similes. Most significantly, it has the ability to evaluate itself based on how "good" its similes are. Harmon programmed it with rules of evaluating figurative language based on her research into literature and linguistics; for example, it is widely accepted that a good simile needs to compare two things that are similar enough that the reader can see where the comparison is coming from, but not so similar that the comparison is too obvious.

Most poetry generators have templates, but Figure8 is groundbreaking because it has the ability to learn from its own judgments of the quality of its work, as well as the styles of other writers. It generates many similes, and then ranks them based on Harmon's criteria of clarity, novelty, aptness and surprise. Comparing celery to asparagus, for example, may get high scores for clarity and aptness, since it's clear what the simile is going for, but would get low scores for novelty and surprise. Surprise is most important to Harmon, who said she was pleasantly surprised by Figure8's first output.

Opening quote
"I had no idea where it was getting a lot of these connections and even sentence structures from," she said. "That was really exciting to me."
Closing quote


AI poetry

The ability to be surprising is certainly a huge step in the field of artificial intelligence, but this doesn't mean that the computer program is sentient. It still operates according to defined rules, even if those rules allow it to adapt. And many would argue that the whole point of poetry is the expression of emotion, which computer programs definitely don't have yet.

Opening quote
"We can make up all kinds of stories in our heads for what a poem means," Harmon said. "It doesn't necessarily mean the system itself was creative."
Closing quote

Stephen McGregor, a PhD student in computational creativity at Queen Mary University of London who has created poetry AIs, expressed similar sentiments:

Opening quote
"If a computer were to somehow have its own idea about how to write poetry, the computer would probably write about what it's like to be a computer," said McGregor. However, he adds, "I very much doubt there's anything it's like to be a computer."
Closing quote

Harmon believes that it's possible this research could contribute to the creation of a truly creative, sentient computer one day. But for the most part, this program is intended to augment human creativity, and serve as an aid for flesh-and-blood poets.

Opening quote
"This is a discovery process for helping us figure out how humans are creative," she said. "How can [computers] support that process to help us be the best we can be?"
Closing quote

Science
Technology
Artificial Intelligence