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Opinion: Machine-made poetry is here

LONDON, ENGLAND - Ai-Da Robot, an ultra-realistic humanoid robot artist, paints during a press call at The British Library on April 4, 2022 in London, England.
Hollie Adams
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LONDON, ENGLAND - Ai-Da Robot, an ultra-realistic humanoid robot artist, paints during a press call at The British Library on April 4, 2022 in London, England.

More than a million people have reportedly tried out ChatGPT, a new chatbot from the research lab OpenAI - AI for "artificial intelligence." Users can ask it questions, or submit prompts for poems, term papers, or essays.

"It makes mistakes," Calum Chace, the author and expert on AI told us, "and plagiarizes from the internet. But the speed and quality is remarkable. Anti-plagiarism software packages are already hard pressed. Their work probably just became impossible."

I asked ChatGPT to write a poem about childhood. Within seconds, it sent back these lines:

"Childhood, a time of wonders,
A time of joy and fun..."

...and went on to invoke trees, mud pies, innocence, and the sound of cicadas. What, no puppies?

Katha Pollitt, one of America's great poets and critics, read that poem and told us, "Cliched and tiresome. I don't think Auden has to worry about his laurels."

I then asked ChatGPT to conjure a verse about bagels in the style of William Shakespeare.

"'Tis a bagel, a round delight," the chatbot burped back--

"A breakfast treat to make us bright
A crisp, chewy texture to please,
A sprinkle of sesame for ease"

It went on to speak of cream, but not cream cheese. I asked the bot for bagel poems in the styles of W.H. Auden and Emily Dickinson. It flashed out highly similar verses that simply removed the Shakespearean, "Tis" from the first line.

Katha Pollitt wasn't impressed.

"No wordplay or anything to think about," she told us. "They are a collection of cliches. Which is not surprising. The bot has not had any experiences or emotions, and no imagination. It has no sense of the multiple meanings and resonances of words. So how could it write a good poem?"

It is inviting to end with that critical slam-dunk from a great poet to dismiss chatbots that write, draw, or soon, I'm sure, talk like a radio host.

But Calum Chace cautions that Artificial Intelligence software will keep learning. It has no human experiences, but also no human foibles, like exhaustion, distraction, anxiety, or forgetfulness. Humans may soon become, he says, "the second-smartest species on the planet. It will be the most important event in human history. Bar none. The outcome may well be fabulous for humanity, but that is not guaranteed."

So be courteous to bots. Maybe they'll remember us kindly when their day arrives.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.