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I, Google, Poet

by Brian Ries
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Machine-generated lyricism finds fans on social media.

Type a few words into Google’s search bar and you’ll see four predictive suggestions pop up in the space just below. It’s a bit of technology that was developed to help users get faster and better search results, because, the company says, people read more quickly than they type. What it wasn’t intended to do was make Google a poet. But it has.

If you were to type “what does it …” into the search box, Google might suggest the following, based on previous search activity by real-life Google users:

What does it mean/What does it mean when your eye twitches/What does it mean when your poop is green/What does it feel like to die.

Read the lines aloud with conviction, and the randomness of the phrases fades away, replaced by something intentional-sounding, like, well, poetry.

Sampsa Nuotio, a former tech entrepreneur living in Finland, stumbled upon the beauty of machine-generated poetics late last year. He had been mid-Google query when the phone rang, leaving “Am I a …” sitting there in the search box as he answered the phone. When he returned to the screen, the machine had created the following quasi-lyrical text:

Am I an alcoholic/Am I fit to drive/Am I allergic to dogs/Tell me, Andrew, am I.

“It was like a really bad and funny poem,” Nuotio says. The 37-year-old tested different lines and generated more poems. He put together a Tumblr blog titled Google Poetics, and what began as an amusing diversion—available only in Finnish—has now expanded into a world of algorithmic poetry in 12 languages, complete with fast-growing Facebook and Twitter accounts that promote the best submissions. Altogether, Google Poetics counts approximately 50,000 readers who enthusiastically follow—and share—the humorous, and sometimes dark, prose. “People seem to enjoy the thought of Google [as] a poet—as if there was an artificial intelligence with feelings … spewing out these self-deprecating poems,” he says.

Nuotio has yet to cash in on Google Poetics. The Finn has an agent in New York and hopes to start approaching publishers “pretty soon.” In the meantime, the stanzas are coming out as fast as the team can type in (sometimes very existential) search terms. When asked of the appeal of the poems, Nuotio says: “It’s this sort of in-your-face and too-much-information glimpse of humanity.” Because, as a recent Google poem reminds us, ultimately we are the machine:

What if/What if God was one of us/What if I told you/What if there was no Google.

From our July 5, 2013, issue.

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