Chatbot poetry and the tomato experiment

Artificial Intelligence is in the news. Warnings about AI’s potential risks being ignored as researchers race to create ever more advanced capabilities,  alongside calls for upgrading the potential dangers of AI to levels currently associated with pandemics and nuclear war, are raising concerns.

Add the high-profile AI developers such as Geoffrey Hinton, who helped develop deep learning and resigned from Google in May 2023 in order to speak more freely, and Blake Lemoine who was fired by Google over claims the conversational chatbot LaMDA was sentient. It’s clear many scientists working in the field have serious concerns about the direction AI research is heading.

Digital technology is not neutral. Its development absorbs the beliefs and practices of the programmers, engineers and designers behind its creation. Technology mirrors existing social and cultural structures, while its power is clearly visible, for example  how social media is believed by many to be the source of reliable truths rather than a platform for personal opinion.

Chatbots are increasingly being used for communication, coding and marketing blurb or press releases etc, while their conversational style offers a more personal browsing experience than traditional search engines. AI is the future but is progress inevitable or should those expressing concerns be listened to more closely?

What about those areas which are uniquely human, such as the expression of emotion through art and the deeply personal experience of resonance?

Can AI write poetry?

I registered on ChatGPT to find out.

Developed by the AI research company OpenAI, ChatGPT was launched at the end of 2022. It’s free to use and, in return for your email address plus the usual data terms and conditions, it will answer your questions or engage in conversation on any topic of your choice. There are worse ways to spend an evening!

I’m not alone in asking if AI can write poetry.

A recent piece in The Atlantic explores the question What Poets Know That ChatGPT Doesn’t while other articles address emotional support e.g. ‘I learned to love the bot’: meet the chatbots that want to be your best friend. If AI can fill emotional spaces in people’s lives then it bodes well for its ability to write poetry – doesn’t it?

The tomato experiment came about through a discussion about what makes an effective poem. Once a month I meet with other poets via Zoom to chat about poetry and, with no structure or agenda, we never know where conversations will go,

Recently we talked about resonance, and how identifying with a theme or phrase in a poem can hit hard for some but not others. We decided to all write a poem on the seemingly unambiguous topic – tomato – and see where it led us.

The results were stunningly different in content and style. How would ChatGP compare with these unique interpretations? I decided to try it out and asked for a poem about tomatoes.  All the examples below are the first stanzas.

In the garden, bright and red,
Grows a fruit, so widely spread,
Round and plump, with juicy flesh,
Tomato, a gift, nature does refresh.

I’d read you could ask GPTChat to write poetry in a certain style so I opted for write a poem about tomatoes in the style of Sylvia Plath.

In the garden’s domain, a scarlet affair,
Tomatoes recline, their secrets laid bare.
Silent guardians of vibrant delight,
Concealing depths beneath skins so bright.

Lastly, I tried write a poem in the style of Sue Watling. writer and poet, knowing there were examples of my work online.

A tomato, oh so humble,
Yet its presence, a constant rumble.
On the vine, it does grow,
A fruit so bright, its colours aglow.

I tried giving a little more information by including the word contemporary and adding the blog URL and my twitter name @suewatling.  It didn’t help!

In Sue Watling’s realm, where words take flight,
A modern tomato basks in her poetic light.
Amidst screens and tweets, its story unfolds,
A symbol of resilience, in Sue’s prose it molds.

What can be learned from this little experiment with AI and poetry?

We know technology mirrors the society it’s developed in, and for more on this try Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, Neil Selwyn or The Social Construction of Technological Systems by Bjiker, Hughes and Pinch. We know chatbots are capable of manipulating vast amounts of data, but we also know that effective poetry is much more than its text.

Poetry has the ability to create a powerful response in the reader. In the words of Emily Dickenson; If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

The tomato efforts of ChatGPT are fat from this!  Whoever is in charge of the poetry voice of  GPT seems to have traditional ideas with regard to poem layout and rhyming schemes while the imagery is limited.

It could be my fault. Maybe there are other ways to talk to a chatbot, but my experience suggests it has not yet developed the ability to make new connections and form original ideas.  On the one hand, this makes it easier to distinguish a chatbot response from a human one, but on the other, there’s the risk of reinforcing already negative ideas about what poetry is and how it should look.

Of all the creative endeavours, poetry seems to be the least loved. The origin of inspiration remains mysterious but is generally focused on some aspect of the human condition. No algorithm has succeded in achieving anything even close to this.

Chatbots do not get sick or die. They can’t have regrets, or change their consciousness through experience, Chatbots don’t fall in or out of love but emotions like these are integral to the creation of poetry.

What will happen as digital communication systems become more powerfully integrated into day-to-day life?

Will poetry survive a digital future?

Will chatbot poetry become a genre of its own?

What will happen to other forms of art and music?

There are more questions than answers but, as always in times of great social and cultural change, we need to make sure we keep asking them.

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