Man Vs. Machine

Have you taken the “Human or Machine” test on NPR yet? On June 27, they posted a really interesting article titled “Human Or Machine: Can You Tell Who Wrote These Poems?” which included a series of 6 sonnets  Some of the sonnets were written by humans while others were by machines programmed by humans. The game, as you’ve likely surmised, involves reading the poems and selecting which one you think was written by a human or by a machine.This article was shared with me by a friend on Facebook. Naturally, I decided to take the test and see how I did.

Writing a sonnet is no easy feat. Believe me, I’ve tried. But I sat down this week and combed through the 6 sonnets and shakily placed my guesses as to which was written by whom/what. I actually ended up getting 5/6 correct! I encourage you to take the test and see how you do. I wonder if you will come to the same conclusions I did.

My thoughts on this exercise immediately turned to the fear that some writers have of becoming completely obsolete. Check out this 2016 article from The Guardian about teaching machines to cook and to write, among other things. Machines can turn out news articles like nobody’s business in such a minute amount of time. Efficient? Sure. Cheap? You bet. But human it is not. And perhaps for newsy pieces, you would have a harder time telling. But, for more creative works, like poetry or fiction, I think you can tell the difference, just like the disparities you see in the above piece from The Guardian. Machines are trapped by their programming which I imagine must align to the definitions of words. One of the great things about language is that you have the ability to play with sound and meaning which is quite different from plugging in a variety of terms that fit with the terms “rose” or “fell.”  And, particularly in poetry, you can create images that stand for something else. I expect that this is much more difficult for a machine to grasp. Sonnet number four includes this phrase: “So best not make a strumpet of this Joy.” For some reason, this seemed very human to me. The writer appears to personify Joy. In my opinion, I didn’t think that a computer would have the ability to “think” in this way. Turns out I was right. (Sorry if I spoiled the test for you.)

So, no matter your results on the test, what does this mean for computers? Could they be programmed to think more creatively. Perhaps. But can creative thinking be boiled down to an algorithm and a series of zeroes and ones? I’m not so sure. I am reminded of the issue of teaching someone to write. I think you can teach a person only so much. Innate talent or a knack for the craft will take you the rest of the way. But, if you don’t have that inclination, then you aren’t ever going to be able to make that leap. I hope that doesn’t sound egotistical.

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