Can you tell the difference between a human writer and a robot?

Bot or Not is a simple game with an existentially complicated premise: Can you tell whether a short poem was written by an actual writer … or a machine?


(Botornot.com)

Oscar Schwartz and Benjamin Laird, two Australians working at the intersection of literature and media, came up with the game as a sort of modern-day Turing test for computer poetry. And much like the original Turing tests, designed in the 1950s as a benchmark for machine intelligence, the differences can prove difficult to parse — particularly since certain branches of poetry are intended to sound like an algorithmic jumble, anyway.

How difficult, you ask? I took the quiz 10 times, and identified a measly six poems correctly.

Schwartz and Laird have used the results from the quiz to identify the most human-sounding computer poems, and vice versa. As of this writing, “#6” most successfully masqueraded as human:

you

are

inscribed
in the
lines on the
ceiling

you

are

inscribed in
the depths
of
the
storm

Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of quiz-takers voted (incorrectly!) that Deanna Ferguson’s “Cut Opinion” was penned by a machine:

cut opinions tear tasteful
hungers huge ground swell
partisan have-not thought
green opinions hidden slide
hub from sprung in
weather yah
bold erect tender
perfect term transparent till
I two minute topless formed
A necessarily sorry sloppy strands
hot opinions oh like an apple
a lie, a liar kick back
filial oh well hybrid opinions happen
not stopped

This could easily be read as an argument against avant-garde poetry — so nonsensical, even a program can write it! But it seems Schwartz and Laird, who are both researching computer poetry, intended this more as a defense of the nascent genre. In fact, they link out to a number of Web sites that highlight bot poems, with occasionally beautiful results:

Against the laws of
poetry, I sing appeals,
expensive, absurd.

… But can a poem really express beauty, in anything more than a superficial phonetic way, if there’s no actual consciousness behind it? Arguably, the emotions and intellect that go into poetry are the very things that make us human. Except when they can be mimicked, convincingly, by machines.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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