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Dartmouth Hosts Robot Poetry Contest

Of all the tests we've had for robots, this might be the one that is most frightening. Dartmouth College will be adapting the Turing test to judge AI creativity.

David Wagner

July 3, 2015

4 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal:Robotics/Selected_picture" target="_blank">Mirko Tobias Schaefer</a> via Wikipedia)</p>

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A surprisingly small number of words rhyme with "robot," which may turn out to be a problem at Dartmouth College this year, which is holding a robot and AI literature, poetry, and DJ competition. The first annual Neukom Institute Prizes in Computational Arts will test whether judges can determined if a poem, story, or dance set was written by a human or a computer. They're calling it a "Turing test in creativity."

Of all the tests we've had for robots, this might be the one that is most frightening. Sure, we have an AI that can beat humans in Jeopardy. We have AIs that can beat humans at chess. We've instinctively known that if computers weren't smarter than us yet, that they would be soon. But to a certain extent that was no big deal, because being able to retrieve information isn't the same thing as being able to create. Art, we thought, would be the place humans were better than robots.

Now, we're not so sure. If we can create a robot that can beat us at chess while writing a sonnet and building a car all at the same time, what do we have left?

As frightening as it is, this is also truly exciting. It is one thing to teach a robot to hold information and recall it. It is entirely another thing to create something that can essentially think and create for itself. Creating something which can make its own art is art in its own right is a beautiful achievement, and it might be the lasting legacy of humankind to make a race of robots that produces a world full of Sistine Chapels and beautiful books for us to read.

Before we get too carried away with the romance of building robots that turn out poems, let me call foul on the judging concept here. Fooling a human is just a bad test. We've seen it with the original Turing test, and this is even worse. Here's the problem: Humans write lousy poems, for the most part. We're nowhere close to designing a computer that can turn out Shakespeare's sonnets. But it isn't that hard to turn out doggerel that looks like a college freshman wrote it. Trust me. I was a creative writing major in college and have an MFA in fiction. I've seen (and probably written) my fair share of true dreck.

In case you won't trust me, there's a site devoted to this concept. Check out Bot or Not to see what I mean. Bot or Not allows you to read a poem and guess whether it was written by a computer or a bad poet. I got it wrong more often than not. The reason is not that the bots are so good, but that people are so bad.

Of course, that's not really the point. If you gave a million servers a million typewriters and a million years, well, you know the rest. The idea here is to push the state of the art, to appreciate the art of making art, whether it is done with a computer or our own minds. Making a computer that sees beauty in the world is the ultimate defense against the fear we have of them taking over. Making a computer that sees art, makes art, and lives art is another beautiful expression of our humanity.

Through the academic year of 2015-2016 I plan on following the Dartmouth contest to see what comes out of it. If we're lucky, we'll get one or two more beautiful things to add to the world.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share a little poem with you that I wrote:

There once was a struggling robot
Who wrote with the skill of a sot.
He tried and tried
'Til his circuits were fried.
Now all he can do is smoke pot.

See, I told you not enough words rhyme for "robot."

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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