Tortured-artist robot trawls beaches, scrawling poems in the sand

Our current robots can do everything from laying bricks to carrying out complex legal work. In this increasingly dystopian, post-jobs world, it seems all mankind can do is wander the desolate beaches, waves lapping at our feet, and scratch futile poems into the sand, bemoaning what a cruel twist of fate we have sprung on ourselves. Oh, wait! It seems that robots can now do that job as well — based on a new robot poet project carried out by a graduate from the University of Edinburgh.

What Yuxi Liu has created for her master’s thesis is a project called “Poet on the Shore,” which takes the form of an autonomous, 3D-printed robot that potters around the beach writing poetry in the sand beneath its wheels. (We like to imagine it as what might happen if you trained a convolutional neural network on every episode of teen angst drama Dawson’s Creek ever!)

“‘Poet on the Shore’ is part of my master dissertation in Design Informatics, exploring sensibility, sociability, and morality of machines,” Liu told Digital Trends. “The project attempts to challenge the fundamental anthropocentric assumption regarding machines by giving the machine a voice.”

The idea is that the robot will eventually make use of its surroundings to generate poetry, much as a human poet may do. With this in mind, it’s equipped with various smart sensors for measuring external conditions, such as outside temperature and wind speed.

Liu says that the current prototype is not fully working in the sense of generating poetry, but she plans to work with machine-learning frameworks to make this possible. “I’m trying to work with TensorFlow and ConceptNet for the next step,” she said. What it can do in its current state is to automatically write out programmed poems, using an in-built device “similar to a drawing machine.”

Clearly, there is more to do, but the work touches on a point of real interest: Our assumptions about whether or not a machine can be creative. As Liu writes in her thesis, “‘Poet on the Shore’ is an attempt to challenge the anthropocentric assumption regarding machines by demonstrating the machine’s poetic sensitivity. The robot intervenes in the world. These interventions, expressed through the kinetic and poetic gestures, reveal its non-utilitarian existence: the verse it writes will eventually be washed away by the waves or winds.”

We look forward to the next step of the project. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch live-streamed future videos of a tortured artist robot forever scribbling self-destructing poems like they are Snapchat messages? That’s totes existential by Silicon Valley standards.