Tonight, on Burns Night, folk will gather to eat, drink, and read aloud the poetry of Scotland’s national bard. A quick search for #celebrateburnsnight on social media will bring up plans for celebrations across Scotland, as well as further afield in Ireland, Germany and Canada. For one night, all eyes are on Rabbie, and the Scottish Poetry Library website will see a massive surge in visitors looking for poems to share over dinner, not least of all “Address to a Haggis.” This is one instance of technology – in this case a simple website – acting in concert with the written word to bring people together. This Burns Night another, more cutting-edge instance of this partnership between words and technology can be found in Dubai.
In 2019, the Scottish Poetry Library, alongside The Poetry Archive and The Poetry Society, was invited to collaborate on a project for the UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Led by artist and designer Es Devlin OBE, the object was to build and train an Artificial Intelligence algorithm to write poetry. My role was to be one of the readers of the algorithm’s early attempts at creating verse.
This astronaut sickness
This absence of space
The first step was for the developers to feed the algorithm over 15,000 poems by 100 British poets; the next was to analyse and refine the text it produced. That’s where the readers came in. We were provided with long lists of poetic couplets produced by the algorithm and asked to evaluate not just the overall quality of the lines, but the grammar, content and sensibility. The couplet quoted above was the 16th I read and the first that struck me as holding something of poetry in it. I thought they were cool, for lack of a better phrase.
We repeated this process several times, the hope being that the feedback provided would help the algorithm develop a consistent style. I have been tempted, but have deliberately avoided using words like “authentic” or “convincing” when talking about the poetry produced – whether or not the algorithm was producing “authentic” poetry came to seem less important as the ultimate shape of the project emerged. Instead, bearing in mind that 2022 is Scotland’s Year of Stories, I prefer to see the algorithm and its poetry as exploring a new way to shape stories.
This project emerged in response to a question posed by the Breakthrough Initiatives space science program: “If we discover other civilizations out there, what message could we send that represents humanity and planet Earth?” Every visitor to the UK Pavilion will ‘donate’ a word, which the algorithm will use as a prompt to generate a couplet of poetry. I see it therefore as a collaborative story on a grand scale, with pavilion visitors’ contributions added to those of the artists, poets, developers and readers involved in the process along the way.
Expo 2020 is an enormous cultural exchange, a trade fair of ideas and values – this collaborative poem is a fitting way to share our stories and find common ground in our experiences. We are living through a time when our interactions with one another are characterised by distance and separation. It is heartening, particularly on Burns’ Night, a night dedicated to kinship and the celebration of poetry, to see a poem, a message, a collective story told across those barriers. It speaks to the power of stories to unite us in difficult times.
Scottish Poetry Library
25 January 2022