About AI, Art, Music and Poetry

I’ve gotten into a number of conversations about this recently and I just wanted to throw my 2 cents into the ring. And the first thing I have to say is that I consider “Artificial Intelligence” a misnomer. It suggests notions of sentience and consciousness that, despite what some random and panicky Google employee might think, is never going to happen. I’m not going to go into why Algorithms ≠ Sentience and never will. That’s a rabbit hole full of quibbles and false equivalencies. It’s like arguing how many angels dance on a pin. Suffice it to say, science can’t even currently define sentience/consciousness, let alone create it “artificially”. AI is just a set of algorithms no different—and I can’t emphasize this enoughno different, practically speaking, than a pocket calculator. If you ask any calculator what 2+2 is, it will tell you. 4! My God! Artificial Intelligence! Sentience! Consciousness!


Correctly answering questions is not a sign of sentience. ChatPGT is just a glorified calculator. That’s all it is. Which is why I would call it algorithmic intelligence rather than artificial intelligence. Ask ChatGPT a question and you’re asking a calculator a question. The only difference between the two comes down to the sophistication of the algorithms and the answer given. That’s it. You can unplug it or take out the batteries when you get bored with it. It’s just algorithms.

Now, onto the subject of algorithmic intelligence vs. art, music and literature. It ain’t gonna happen. Here’s why: Back in 2015, AlphaGo became the first computer Go program to beat a human professional Go player without handicap on a full-sized 19×19 board. AlphaGo accomplished this feat through the use of “Deep Learning“, what developers termed a “Neural Network”. The unfortunate upshot of all this terminology, like “neural”, is that it leads one to think that developers must have created something like a brain. But that’s not what they’ve done. What they’ve done is to write elegant algorithms that mimic perceived cognitive features in biological systems—and in a very limited sense. They’re not mimicking “consciousness”. They’re mimicking, at an algorithmic level, the way biological systems are perceived to organize and analyze information. I write perceived because AI is only mimicking one aspect of a biological system ascertained through observation. Neural networks in no way define or recreate “intelligence” or “sentience”. The reason that AlphaGo could master Go is because, though the algorithms were difficult to perfect, there was a fool-proof evaluation function that defined success. Either AlphaGo won or AlphaGo lost.


The same doesn’t work for producing art, a symphony, or poetry. Algorithmic intelligence, for example, has no way to evaluate the aesthetic/emotional success or failure of a poem. Given that human beings can’t even agree on what constitutes a great poem (mostly for lack of knowledge, ability or talent) an algorithm has no hope. I’ll occasionally be asked why I obsess over a definition of great poetry and why public appeal matters. It’s because public appeal is humanity’s version of an evaluation function; and it’s most effective when it functions over time. That’s why we can say that Shakespeare, Bach, Keats, Mozart, da Vinci and Beethoven are our greatest artists and why we can say that as an objective measure (despite all the hand waving among those who continue to insist that all art is subjective and a matter of taste). A work of art’s appeal, over time, is an objective measure. It’s the only one we’ve got.

The problem for algorithmic intelligence is that genius is rare.

This means that if Algorithmic Intelligence is tasked with creating a poem, its models—the thousands and thousands of poems it can sample—are going to be almost wholly mediocre. And because algorithmic intelligence has no concept of mediocrity, has no evaluation function pertaining to the artistic accomplishment of a poem, it will, at best, “learn” how to flawlessly mimic humanity’s mediocrity. By way of example, I get sent dozens of poems over the course of a year and, with few exceptions, they are all mediocre. But what is striking is how similar the mistakes of algorithmic intelligence are to the mistakes of mediocre poets. In short, algorithmic intelligence is rapidly “getting better at “learning to mimic” mediocre poets, and that’s because mediocre poets and algorithmic intelligence are both drawing from the same well. (Interestingly, part of what makes mediocre artists mediocre is they lack the ability to accurately evaluate their own output, called the Dunning Kruger Effect.)

You might object that if it takes time for humans to identify and agree on great art, then expect the same from algorithmic intelligence. The problem is that the next one hundred years are going to expose algorithmic intelligence to vastly more mediocre art, music and literature—along with a hundred years worth of confused human evaluation. That’s only going to make algorithmic intelligence even better at mimicking mediocre poets and readers. Ultimately, the mirror that AI will hold up to humanity, in terms of art, is not humanity’s genius but it’s bland mediocrity. And that’s because mediocrity, with rare exception, is what humanity produces.

To summarize, the only evaluative guidance algorithmic intelligence has as regards the “success or failure” of its art is human taste. God help it.

Pity the mediocre poet, composer or artist, because that’s who algorithmic intelligence is going to put out of business.

up in Vermont | March 22 2023

17 responses

  1. Great thoughts here. I don’t 100% agree with you on every point, but I DO understand your conclusions and agree mostly. Like you, I agree artificial intelligence is not intelligence at all. Which is why I always write A”I”. A sophisticated if/then algorithm, which was always fun to write code for in the 90s (for me, anyway).

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I got a kick out of what you wrote and then this dialog between you and Tara. Not as a muse, in this case, but perhaps a small element of today’s creative context . . .

    The rest of my day was mundane — a $100 visit to the dentist with a $500 ‘nother visit 70 days hence to “maybe” fix what needs attending, paying for and retrieving my copies of ’22 filed taxes, a short shop, losing — and finding — my wallet, moving yet another two more handtrucks of firewood to ease remaining chills before summer, identifying two really puzzling (inexplicable) mundane equipment losses (a hand-cranked flour sifter and a long handled shovel) and fashioning a too-late supper. And I’m struggling a bit with the realization that I’ve got to make pretty radical changes from where I am, how I designed and built it all, what it has all come to mean to me (starting in 1989), and how I can’t — and shouldn’t — continue it alone anymore than the coming spring, summer and maybe fall as I bear down into the last third of my eighties.

    Big changes ahead. And the only intelligence I have is between my ears augmented by finger tips with clearly, if slowly, diminishing sensitivity. (If I had a tenner for every pill, tool, utensil, piece of mail, kindling, or wood, I’ve dropped since Labor day I could have singled-handedly saved the Credit Suisse!)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Well, you’ve got to prepare for the next 80 years of life. My father’s death radically changed my own outlook. He was 25 years older than me, and it occurred to me, with a *blinding* flash of insight, that maybe, just possibly, I won’t live forever. How do I want to spend the next twenty odd years? It ain’t remodeling my kitchen and repairing my roof—mine or anyone else’s. I already have plans for three more novels and as much poetry as I can stand to write.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. “By way of example, I get sent dozens of poems over the course of a year and, with few exceptions, they are all mediocre.”


    Or maybe just a bad day. Even Eliot had those—for example, but for Pound’s input Eliot would have included these execrable lines in The Waste Land:

    Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
    Under the flatfish and the squids.

    Graves’ disease in a dead Jew’s eyes!
    Where the crabs have eat the lids

    And not just Pound. I would bet you even a mediocre poet knows better than that.

    There are many other instances where Eliot’s insular genius could have benefited from a party or two and perhaps a side job in sales (e.g., Tupperware).


    • Writing truly good poetry is hard. It’s not just hard but demands the sort of talent one is born with or isn’t. It’s like pianists. There are any number of professional pianists who play well and can accompany other musicians, then there are concert pianists, and then there are recording artists like Andras Schiff, and then there are the rare geniuses like Glenn Gould. The same in sports. Every basketball team has its professional players, but then there’s the rare talent like Larry Bird or Micheal Jordan. They arguably didn’t work any harder than any of the other professionals, but they were born with some rare combination of abilities that elevated their play above and beyond the others. The 17th century is full of composers, hundreds of them, but there was only one Bach, one Mozart, and one Beethoven.

      The point I’m steering toward is this: Poetry is so widely read and written, and there is enough money in poetry (in MFA programs, in academia, in competitions, at institutions like Poetry’s Chicago headquarters where Eli Lilly’s 200,000,000 dollars float around) that it’s in everyone’s interest to declare that every poem and every poet is precious. There’s little to no penalty for writing mediocre poetry. And what is poetry after all? These days it’s little more than lineated affectation. But there’s no reason to think that poetry is any different than musical or athletic talent. The truth is that it doesn’t come down to bad days. Real poetry is hard. The ability to write durable, let alone great poetry, is exceedingly rare. By in large, the vast majority of poets are mediocre. It was like that in the 20th, 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th centuries & etc… There’s zero reason to think it’s any different now. Evidence argues that it’s not. Full disclosure: I wish I were a great musician/composer, but I don’t have the talent. I don’t even merit mediocre. I wish I were better at skateboarding, public speaking, seducing women (when I was younger) etc… Even Shakespeare! Shakespeare, the greatest of all poets, wrote:

      [I] look upon myself and curse my fate,
      wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
      Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
      Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
      With what I most enjoy contented least…

      It’s the human condition and, to be honest, even mediocrity is an accomplishment. If algorithmic intelligence manages mediocrity, I would call that a triumph.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “lineated affectation” !!!

      A little context. I’ve spent today absorbed (save for meals and Google searches and loading wood because, after all it’s still March in Maine!) by a sometimes structurally difficult-to-grasp Greek cinematic series contribution to Netflix (Maestro in Blue) that has moved me more than anything I could have imagined myself being at my advanced age. If I hadn’t spent the day confronted by and thorougly thriving on the remaining extended range of my emotional keyboard I don’t think I could have enjoyed observing the brilliance of the above-noted literary dart that just whizzed by our noses!

      TY, Patrick!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d say it is a good thing that many write mediocre poems, it allows for me to write it too and only then can I produce a great poem (though I am not sure if I am talented enough to produce great poetry but it does not hurt to try).

    Oh, also, I understand what you were saying but for technicality, your calculator would not turn 4! if you ask it what is 2+2 because 4! is 24 (sorry, I just took this unit and found it hard to let it go). XD


    • Ha! Four factorial. Exclamation points will never be the same. :)

      What you write about mediocre poets allowing you to write is insightful and applies to AI too. You put into words what I didn’t. I wrote that it’s the mediocre artists who should be worried, but what you write is equally valid. AI’s mediocrity means there will always be the need for human creativity, to go where AI can’t go.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Sexy & Unpredictable « PoemShape

  6. “AI is no different, practically speaking, than a pocket calculator.” That sentence, right after complaining about false equivalencies! If that’s a fair comparison, so is this one: “a human beings is no different, practically speaking, than a heap of dirt. Each is just a lump of matter rigidly obeying by the laws of physics.” True as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far.

    I wonder what you think goes on in our brains, or in the brains of once-in-a-century-brilliant writers, if not an incomprehensibly complex series of computations. Some people wince at that idea, because they think “computation” necessarily entails: stiffness, staleness, dullness, inflexibility, unoriginality, unintelligence, mimicry, mediocrity. Those people are wrong, and are usually parroting misunderstandings they’ve heard elsewhere, rather than looking with their own eyes. *That’s* unoriginality.


    • I stand by my statement. The only difference between AI and a pocket calculator is the complexity of their algorithms. To be clear, AI is just an elegant calculator. Because you’re impressed by the output of AI doesn’t make it a “once in a century brilliant writer”. It means you’re either easily impressed by AI or woefully under-appreciate a brilliant writer (given your flippant comparison between the two). And it means you don’t understand what AI is or how it works (let alone the difference between AI and the human brain). As to “some people wince”? Those “people” look an awful like straw men.


    • “The only difference between AI and a pocket calculator is the complexity of the algorithms.” This statement isn’t false, it just misses the point. It’s like saying the “only” difference between a Caravaggio and a smear on the canvas is the complexity of the arrangement of paint; the “only” difference between a living cell and some hydrogen gas is the complexity of the arrangement of atoms; the “only” difference between a human brain and a worm brain is the complexity of the arrangement of neurons. In every case, the leap in complexity is so dizzyingly large that it leads to something of a totally new kind: a work of art, a life form, a creative intelligence.

      Now to be clear, I didn’t claim that any modern AI is in the same league as any brilliant writer, past or present – definitely not! I’m saying, there’s no good argument that an AI couldn’t be in the future. It’s really not a good argument to say AI is “just algorithms.” Damn near every scientist who studies the mind agrees human intelligence and creativity are the product of “just algorithms” carried out in our own brains. By your reasoning, it would follows that human beings are no different from pocket calculators either – we’re “just algorithms” too!

      But something clearly does separate humans and pocket calculators. I think it’s precisely the enormous difference in the complexity of the algorithms – a difference in complexity at least as large as the one separating a piece of lead from an organism. I’d like to know what you think the difference is.

      Since you’ve decided I don’t know anything about AI or brains, you might not care about what I say. I do actually study this stuff, though, and your blog post has a pretty inaccurate description of how AlphaGo and other neural nets work. So at least one of us is suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, if not both…


    • //…it just misses the point. It’s like saying the “only” difference between a Caravaggio and a smear on the canvas is the complexity of the arrangement of paint…//

      Right. But no one is saying that the Caravaggio is sentient because of its complexity. In terms of sentience, a Caravaggio is indeed just a more elegant “smear on the canvass”. Likewise, and in terms of sentience, AI is simply a more elegant and complex calculator. AI is not a “creative intelligence” in any sentient sense and never will be.

      //Damn near every scientist who studies the mind agrees human intelligence and creativity are the product of “just algorithms”//

      A completely made up claim but feel free to source your assertion.

      //But something clearly does separate humans and pocket calculators. I think it’s precisely the enormous difference in the complexity of the algorithms…//

      What you seem(?) to be loosely asserting is related to “emergence” or “emergentism”: “In science and philosophy, “emergence” refers to novel holistic properties that arise in complex systems, created by interactions at smaller scales.”


      If you believe this, then you might also conclude that sentience will “emerge” once “the algorithms” are “complex enough“, but that’s a wildly simplistic understanding of emergentism. Only the most fringe proponents of this “theory” would agree that consciousness could arise from any complexity, To believe, as you suggest, that complexity of algorithms=sentience, then you must also be willing to believe that any binary system, right down to a steam engine or a marble run, if it were complex enough, could also become sentient. And you’re welcome to believe that. People believe in all sorts of things. But there’s zero evidence to support such a belief.

      //and your blog post has a pretty inaccurate description of how AlphaGo and other neural nets work//

      Since I based what I wrote—as linked in my article—on sources that include Wikipedia, feel free to point out where they’re wrong.

      “AlphaGo Zero, by comparison, has only been programmed with the basic rules of Go. Everything else it learned from scratch. As described in a paper published in Nature today, Zero developed its Go skills by competing against itself. It started with random moves on the board, but every time it won, Zero updated its own system, and played itself again. And again. Millions of times over.”


      And there’s your evaluation function. It either won or lost.


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