A New Age of Artifice

January 23, 2017 § 5 Comments

In the fall of 2011, Duke University’s undergraduate literary journal published a rather unassuming poem entitled “For the Bristlecone Snag” (“The Archive”). To the journal’s poetry editors, the poem appeared to be a typical undergraduate work, comprised of several unfulfilled metaphors and awkward turns of phrase. What the editors did not know at the time of publication, however, was that this poem was not written by a human. Instead, it was written by a computer program (Merchant).

When I first learned about “For the Bristlecone Snag”, I was reminded of the writings of Alan Turing, a renowned English computer scientist in the mid 20th century. In his seminal article on the subject of artificial intelligence (A.I.), Turing articulates that the question, “can machines think?”, is “too meaningless to deserve discussion” (Turing 442). After all, he claims, we have no direct evidence that other humans can think, and we merely assume that they do based on their behavior. Turing argues that this “polite convention that everyone thinks” should apply to all beings that can demonstrate human behavior (Turing 446). It is from this line of thought that Turing conceptualized the Turing Test, an experiment in which a computer tries to convince a human of its humanity. According to Turing, if an A.I. can convince a human judge that it is human, then we must assume that the A.I. can think.

While the program that produced “For the Bristlecone Snag” did not complete an extensive and proper Turing Test, it did convince human judges that it was human. At the very least, the poem’s acceptance into an undergraduate literary journal reveals that literate machines can, and will, exist in the near future. The way is paved for more professional and accomplished artificial authors.

Indeed, even in the half decade since “For the Bristlecone Snag” was published, the technology behind artificial intelligence has improved rapidly. Watson, IBM’s “cognitive computing platform”, is a great example of this progress (Captain). In 2011, Watson defeated two reigning champions in Jeopardy, successfully interpreting and answering the game show’s questions. While this feat alone was a remarkable step in cognitive computing, Watson’s analytical abilities have since then contributed to over thirty separate industries, including marketing, finance, and medicine (Captain). For example, the machine can read and understand millions of medical research papers in just a matter of minutes (Captain). As intelligent as Watson is, however, he was never designed to pretend to be human. The chief innovation officer at IBM, Bernie Meyerson, believes ‘“it’s not about the damn Turing Test”’; his team is more interested in accomplishing distinctly inhuman tasks, such as big data analysis (Captain).

While IBM may not be interested in the Turing Test, other artificial intelligence companies have been working specifically towards the goal. In 2014, a program by the name of Eugene Goostman passed the Turing Test using machine learning strategies similar to those that drive Watson (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). The chatbot, or program that specializes in human conversation, was able to convince several human judges that it was a thirteen-year-old boy (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). Given the success of Eugene Goostman, and the intelligent accomplishments of Watson, it is indisputable that the Turing Test can be, and has been, passed. Artificial intelligence is a reality. Machines can think.

As an aspiring writer and computer scientist, I can’t help but fixate on the implications that A.I. has for literature. It is entirely possible, even likely, that “For the Bristlecone Snag” foreshadows an era in which the most successful and prolific authors will be machines, an era in which the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature are no longer given to humans, an era in which humanity no longer writes its own stories.

Yet, this era of artifice should not be greeted with worry or anxiety. Art has always been artificial, a constructed medium for human expression. In the coming decades, we will author the next authors, create the new creators, we will mold the hand that holds the brush. Artificial intelligence should not be feared as an end to art, but rather a new medium, a new age of artifice.

– Zach Gospe


Captain, Sean. “Can IBM’s Watson Do It All?” Fast Company. N.p., 05 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

Merchant, Brian. “The Poem That Passed the Turing Test.” Motherboard. N.p., 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

“The Archive, Fall 2011.” Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.<https://issuu.com/dukeupb/docs/thearchive_fall2011>.

Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950,  pp. 433–460. www.jstor.org/stable/2251299.

“TURING TEST SUCCESS MARKS MILESTONE IN COMPUTING HISTORY” University of Reading. N.p., 8 June 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.


Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

§ 5 Responses to A New Age of Artifice

  • resnichm says:

    I find the last paragraph of this post quite intriguing. As someone who is more of an artist than a computer scientist, the thought of artists being replaced by A.I.’s was quite worrisome, as you predicted. However, you are undoubtedly right that art is a “constructed medium for human expression.” Art is typically created as much for the artist as it is for the audience. From the consumer standpoint, the cathartic experience of creating art is irrelevant, which begs the question: why do we, as consumers, need art to be created by a human if it expresses our human feelings? If an A.I. can produce art, literature or poetry that captures what it means to be human, it will be successful.

    The problem with this is that art is meaningful not only because it is human, but because it is purposeful. Think of Picasso’s Guernica. The artistic medium itself is not complicated and the shapes he uses are not complex either, but the anti-war message he is conveying grabbed the attention of Europeans around the world and opened their eyes to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

    I agree with you, that Artificial Intelligence is not the end of art. A.I. cannot replace human artists, and I look forward to see what humans will create with A.I. as their medium.

    Liked by 2 people

  • elizabeth1315 says:

    Before your post, I had never heard of “For the Bristlecone Snag,” so I am glad that you brought it to our attention. The poem’s acceptance into the journal is an interesting spin on the Turing Test, as Duke apparently did not question whether a human created it. (Although, to be fair, would any of us have questioned whether the student had written the poem when he submitted it under his name?) As I read through your blog, I was a bit skeptical of the poem’s merit and what it meant for the future of literature. Out of curiosity, I looked up the poem and how the program created it. From what I understand, the program works quite arbitrarily, selecting words and phrases at random and without context. I actually found a link to the program here: https://www.poetrygenerator.ninja/poem/3ad2b261224f20d9. You simply hit the button and it instantly gives you a poem.

    With this in mind, I struggle to call it art, at least from its beginning as words on a page. While art can be random and arbitrary, I would argue that most poetry is intentional. When we write poems, we do so to convey thoughts, feelings, and experiences and to share our perspectives of the world. If there is an arbitrary component, it usually has an underlying and intentional meaning behind it. The program that “wrote” this poem is doing none of that—it has no perspectives or ideas to share with us. It has only a data base of words, broken up into positives and negatives. At the very most, we, the humans, give it its meaning. I suppose in this way it’s a form of art, offering us a chance to raise questions and build ideas, but the humans are still the driving force behind it. In this way, the AI simply becomes another medium for art, as you said. For that reason, while I think we may eventually build AI that can create intentional and meaningful poetry, I continue to see it as something in the distant, rather than near, future.

    Liked by 1 person

  • My initial reactions: First, what does it mean to “understand” medical research papers? Second, who names a program “Eugene Goostman”? That seems weirdly specific. And third, is it really that hard to pass as a 13-year-old boy? Have you seen Vincent from the Netflix TV show “Bojack Horseman”? — it’s three kids standing on each others’ shoulders. I’m sorry but ’13-year-old boy’ is like, the lowest bar for A.I. to hurdle.
    A.I. can pass the Turing Test, but in our discussion, we should define the term “to think” before we say that artificial intelligence can think. What is the nature of consciousness? This philosophical question reaches far past the idea of pretending to be a teenager in a chatroom.

    Now, as far as your point about art and literature — I agree. Verner Vinge predicted generative design in his 1993 paper when describing the potential applications of A.I. “Combine the graphic generation capability of modern machines and the esthetic sensibility of humans.” By as early as 2006, we had the capability to produce art using software (see https://www.wired.com/2015/09/bizarre-bony-looking-future-algorithmic-design/). Just remember: We are the authors. Humans own the copyright, despite whatever our programs may invent.

    Liked by 3 people

  • woodrume says:

    I am really glad Zach brought Watson into this discussion, because I distinctly remember watching him compete on Jeopardy. Although he got countless questions correct much faster than Ken Jennings could, he also missed some questions by a longshot. For example, he answered “Toronto” for a question in the category “U.S. Cities”, which a human Jeopardy contestant would arguably never do. For those who are interested, I found a short article http://venturebeat.com/2011/02/17/ibm-researcher-explains-what-watson-gets-right-and-wrong/ that explains a little bit about where and why he made these mistakes.

    These shortcomings stuck out to me because they displayed a distinct flaw in the “human-ness” of Watson. I would describe them most succinctly as a lack of “context”. Though AI now has the power to quickly process large amounts information, it still lacks the ability (in my opinion) to see the bigger picture. Toronto may have fit the description of the question Watson was trying to answer, but he didn’t weigh the context of the category into his answer.

    Personally though, I am interested less in how machines can be made to think or act like humans and far more in the ways that machines and humans can combine their different forms of intelligence. Adding to Elizabeth’s point about AI becoming a new medium, I see immense potential for art to be produced by AI in collaboration with humans. I believe that a machine’s processing power and ability to quickly learn new skills could allow humans to take art further by incorporating more information, considering different points of view, or using new techniques in their pieces. Perhaps instead of trying to make machines more human, we should focus instead on utilizing their distinct talents as machines.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Patrizio Murdocca says:

    Hey Zach,

    I think that you did a really great job of taking the concept of the Turing Test and Turing’s ideas for machine consciousness, presenting the most advanced contemporary advancements towards machine consciousness, and making an argument for its future progression. In a holistic analysis, I thought that you presented some great thoughts and introduced me to a couple of new concepts like “Bristlecone”.

    I do not completely agree with everything you have suggested here, however. In reference to “Bristlecone”, I echo Elizabeth’s point that the algorithm was unable to contextualize the poems at all and instead composed the lines and verses on the basis of grammar rules. The machine’s poem isn’t devoid of meaning but as both you and the external articles about it mention, it’s lines are esoteric and nebulous. I feel like the Merchant program is distinct from human authors in that poems and prose alike by human authors retains the unique addition to culture and art that is lived experience. The Merchant computer, though equipped with tremendous IQ and vocabulary, had never fallen in love before or experienced pain.

    Also, to comment on your projection for art in general, I disagree that we could ever get to such a point and actively hope it does not. As I said earlier, art and writing are so beautiful because people donate a part of themselves to us on their pages. A poetry-writing robot program isn’t taking anything from within itself and sharing that with us.

    Thank you for writing this awesome entry, looking forward to discussing it tomorow!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading A New Age of Artifice at Science/Fiction.


%d bloggers like this: