Who Touches This Touches….an Algorithm

by Arlene Weiner

Ray Kurzweil is an innovator and futurist. He developed a number of widely used innovations, notably the Kurzweil Reader, which uses pattern recognition to translate printed material into machine-readable text and the text into speech. In 1976! According to Wikipedia, the Kurzweil Reader project developed both the first flat-bed scanner and text-to-speech generation.

Kurzweil’s interested in art, and while still in his teens he developed a software program that analyzed music by classical composers and synthesized pieces in their style. Similarly, Kurzweil developed the Ray Kurzweil Cybernetic Poet (RKCP), which analyzes poems by one (or more) poets and generates poems in their styles. Haiku included. (You can download the software free, at http://www.kurzweilcyberart.com/poetry/rkcp_overview.php3, but sorry, not for Macintoshes.)

There’s a history in literature of interest in automatism in the generation of texts. The surrealists and Oulipo developed methods for making texts collectively or with elements of randomness. For example, in the surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse game, each participant writes a section without seeing what the preceding sections are, and in one of Oulipo’s exercises, each noun in a passage is replaced by the noun that occurs a certain number of entries after it in a dictionary. Still, there’s something disquieting about an automated poetry generator. Doesn’t it call the value of poetry into question? or of poets?

One of my philosophy instructors in college, Judith Jarvis (later Thomson), gave as a topic for a paper “Suppose you found out that your best friend was made in Detroit?” Suppose you came across a poem by RKCP, and found it moving? Would you feel defrauded when you found out later that it was generated by a software program? Is the product, the arrangement of words on the page (or striking the ear), the only thing that matters, or is its origin important? Do we want a guarantee of contact with a mind, a man, a camerado?

Arguably the RKCP poem does carry the faint fragrance of the authors of the poems that are its model, just as poems made from a magnetic poetry kit (one of those sets of individual words that can be stuck up on refrigerators and shuffled into poems, or messages) are imprinted with the choices of the people who selected the words.

If you care to, you can assemble an electronic poetry kit based on one of a number of authors (including Baudelaire, in English; Bukowski; Ginsberg; Plath) at http://www.languageisavirus.com/electronicpoetry/index.html As with the magnetic poetry kits, the words are supplied, but you’ll have to bring your own syntax.

[Much of the factual material in this article from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Kurzweil, downloaded March 16, 2010.]

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