Grace Babcock ’18 is a member of the Millennial Generation, born and bred in the digital age. She is also an English major concentrating in literature who has studied the works of 19th century poets including Longfellow, Thoreau and Dickinson. Those worlds collided when Babcock happened upon an episode of the popular online video series Ted Talks that posed numerous provocative questions, including: Can computers write poetry? If so, how is the poetry of machines made of aluminum and silicon different from that of flesh-and-blood human beings? And, perhaps most interesting, what is creativity?
As she listened, Babcock decided to tackle these questions herself. Under the direction of Associate Professor of English Maura Brady, Ph.D., she spent hours studying poetry written by computer algorithms and that composed by men and women in order to compare them to each other. Ultimately, Babcock found that poems written by computers tend to be “sparer and more formulaic,” those written by human beings more “meaningful and intentional.” That work served as the foundation of her thesis for the College’s Integral Honors program.
“I was fascinated, and honestly a little bit scared, of the idea that a computer could generate poetry, because I am a writer and a poet myself, and we tend to consider writing as a very human action that needs to provide some insight into humanity,” she said. “Creativity is something that tends to be associated with emotions and inspiration, and if artificial intelligence can persuade us that it is as emotional or inspired as us this will definitely effect people and the way that they see literature, the arts, and maybe even the world.”
Babcock believes that the best research projects are innovative and personal – and this endeavor certainly fit the bill. She examined AI, its limitations when it comes to creating art, particularly literature, and how it might change society before it develops further. Babcock began her work by taking an online test in which she read through a series of poems and tried to determine if the poem was written by a person or via artificial intelligence; then she analyzed the differences between the two. The primary one she found is that poems written using AI do not offer the window into the humanity that those composed by people so often do. Reading these poems also informed the creative element of her work, a short story about a creative writing professor who is asked to consult with a tech company that Babcock hopes to publish one day.
Throughout the project Babcock drew upon her understanding numerous disciplines, not just literature and computer science, but also history, psychology and philosophy. She learned to ask well-informed questions, conduct and present research and craft a strong thesis. Not only has Babcock enriched her own education, but she has also contributed to the overall body of knowledge. That is what is especially thrilling to her: the idea that someone else could use what she did as a basis for their own work. After all, she noted, when it comes to whether or not AI can write poetry, there are still a number questions be asked, for example, whether computer-generated poetry impacts our brains in the same way that human-generated poetry does. Babcock hopes that her work will be a catalyst for further studies in this area.
“I hope that someone can build upon my research,” she said.
English at Le Moyne,