We're Ready For Our Robot Poet Overlords

04/19/2014 07:30 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2014
Eric Thayer via Getty Images

A survey released this week revealed the American public to be skeptical that teleportation, lunar colonies or automated weather control will be achieved in the next 50 years. Yet another sci-fi scenario seemed more probable: Half of us are prepared for the dawn of artworks by computer Picassos, Brontes and perhaps even Baryshnikovs that can pass for human creations.

This level of optimism, at a time when robot artistry is still in its infancy, says more about our increasingly cozy relationship with technology than it does about the state of the gadgetry itself. It reflects confidence that our brainpower -- and even our creative genius -- will soon be outranked by that of brilliant machines.

According to the Pew Research Center study, which polled 1,001 American adults on predictions for the future, 51 percent of respondents expect that within 50 years, computers will be capable of creating art that is indistinguishable from works by homo sapiens. (By comparison, 39 percent expect to see teleportation, 33 percent think we’ll have colonized other planets and 19 percent predict we’ll be able to press a button and, in the literal sense, make it rain.)

The survey comes as we're hearing more about analytically minded, artificially intelligent algorithms that can assume the duties of human chauffeurs, lawyers, accountants and even journalists (NEVER!).

Pew's finding suggests that we fully expect robots and software to replace us at our desks, but, believing them capable of even greater cognitive feats, see this as merely the start of a broader mechanization. Though computer scientists emphasize that machines are still confined to repetitive, rule-based tasks, we apparently think it's only a matter of time before Siris of the world evolve from booking tickets to mimicking Beckett. We're already entertaining the idea of software that can move our spirits, reflect the human condition and be a sensitive genius, rather than an efficient robotic slave.

“That [Pew] statistic is more of a sociological comment than it is a technological comment because it represents changing human perceptions about technology, rather than any significant changes in computer generative art,” said Oscar Schwartz, a doctorate student researching a dissertation on robot poetry and the creator of a Turing test for poetry called Bot or Not. This mindset, he says, is "preparing us for a kind of interaction with technology [where] computers are no longer a blank notebook, but something we interact with dynamically."

At the same time, Schwartz argued that the data point underscores growing intimacy with devices. Believing smartphones to be sympathetic companions may be a prerequisite to feeling moved by their artistic works.

"We’re emotionally and philosophically ready to deal with the idea of computers generating art," said Schwartz. "That's for a number of reasons, probably first and foremost of which is our constant proximity to technology and how integrated it is to our daily lives."

"When that starts to happen," Schwartz added, "people would probably start creating emotional bonds with various pieces of technology and feeling human-like things toward their devices."

So how close are we to this goal of human-like computer art?

On Schwartz's Bot or Not website, which challenges visitors to guess whether a poem's author is mortal or digital, readers are already being fooled by bot poets. Computer scientist Alan Turing posited that a computer could be said to be intelligent if, in text-based chats with humans, it could convince 30 percent of its interlocutors that they were conversing with another person. The computer-generated poems on Bot or Not have been so successful in hitting that mark, that Schwartz has raised the bar.

"Most of the computer poems on the database of 300 poems easily pass the Turing test," said Schwartz, a "passing" score meaning at least 30 percent of people mistakenly attribute human authorship to a bot writer. He's made it more challenging: A poem "passes" if 60 percent of readers think a computer poem was written by a human. About five or six have already passed.

"[T]hat's a massive statistic," insisted Schwartz. "Sixty percent means it’s no longer chance -- that most people would think the poem was written by a human."

Pew may have asked the wrong question, however. Robot poetry, paintings or plays may not need to be indistinguishable from a person's to be successful. Witness the Web's love for @Horse_ebooks, a Twitter account that attracted thousands of followers with sometimes funny, sometimes poetic meditations churned out by a clever spam bot. Or so its fans assumed until last year. The humans were crushed to learn their bot bard was, in fact, just two guys at a keyboard.

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