Li’l Ice AI writes Chinese poetry

« previous post | next post »

About a week ago I received this Facebook query from about Chinese chatbot poetry (relayed by Mark Liberman):

Since friday Chinese social media are flooded with comments about a poetry book written by Microsoft's chatbot Xiaoice that was published on May 19 (three days ago).

I cannot find a single reference to this book in Google's search engine.

No western media seems to have picked up the news.
(As of today, monday the 22nd)

Intrigued, I decided to look into reports that a Microsoft chatbot was capable of writing a book of Chinese poetry.  My curiosity was especially piqued because, around the same time, Google's AlphaGo AI had defeated the world champion Go player:

"China censored Google's AlphaGo match against world's best Go player:  Government barred broadcasters and online publishers from livestreaming game that saw China’s Ke Jie narrowly beaten" (The Guardian, 5/24/17)

"Minitrue: No Live Coverage of Ke Jie vs AlphaGo Games" (China Digital Times, 5/22/17)

        Minitrue = Ministry of Truth

Hearing these reports, I thought to myself, "What is happening?  Is the day of reckoning upon us?"

Microsoft's AI programs were already writing sophisticated poetic couplets (duìlián 对联) several years ago.  Here's the program, referred to as the "automatic couplet composer".  The directions are all in Chinese, but I can assure those who are interested in giving it a try that the "automatic couplet composer" offers a lot of flexibility and produces respectable, though not necessarily beautiful, couplets.

This site offers four of the quatrains written by Microsoft's famous chatbot, Xiaoice (Li’l Ice), whom we met already a little over a year ago:

"AI for youth: success and failure" (3/25/16 [my birthday!])

Here's the first of the four poems:

lèihén yě móhú dé bù fēnmíng le
wǒ de shēngmìng shì yìshù
yǒu huánghūn shí xītiān de fúyún
yòng cánsǔn de shǒuzhǎng qíqiú


Through the blur of tears, nothing is clear —
My life is art;
Drifting clouds at dusk in the western sky,
With my broken palms I pray.

Not bad, eh?

How did she do it?

First of all, Xiaoice "learned" the poems of 519 modern poets from the 20s onward and then "practiced" them (i.e., was trained) ten thousand times.  Her first attempts to write poetry were crude and halting, but by now she has matured and developed her own distinctive style.

How does Xiaoice know what to write about?  Though this is rather mind-boggling to me, just like a human poet, she gets her inspiration from a scene.  She is shown a photograph and then takes it from there.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade, Brendan O'Kane, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Mara K said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

    Everything happens so much.

    (I think Xiaoice and horse_ebooks would make good friends.)

  2. leoboiko said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

    First they came for the chess players, and I did not speak out, because only humans can play Go.

    Then they came for the Go players, and I did not speak out, because only humans can make poems…

  3. Lai Ka Yau said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

    I actually parsed the third line as the subject of the second line, so it's the clouds that are doing the praying… That is quite nonsensical, though it has the neat effect of the first two lines having the author as the topic and the next two changing the subject to the scenery.

  4. Davek said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

    @ Lai Ka Yau:
    Your version has an interesting use of the pathetic fallacy. If drifting clouds had hands, their palms would look broken.

    But really, isn't this program just a more sophisticated version of those magnetic poetry sets that were big a few years back? Can Xiaoice really express itself or just generate arrangements of words humans can find meaning in?

  5. leoboiko said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

    Davek, Xiaoice is definitely just a very big magnetic poetry set, with a bunch of complicated gears which make them arrange themselves in such a way that humans can find meaning in.

    The question is, are you?

  6. Mara K said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

    @leoboiko is this just going to become a discussion of the Chinese Room paradox?

  7. FM said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 10:23 pm

    @leoboiko I suspect (as a matter of pure conjecture informed by half-remembered college neuroscience courses) that the most significant difference between Xiaoice and Davek is that Davek has five high-throughput senses with which to process and make sense of the world as it is, whereas Xiaoice only processes what its programmers feed into it, and is unable to poke this data to see how it reacts.

    The fishiest part of this story, though… is this Xiaoice the same Xiaoice that's a chatbot? Is it using its chatbot knowledge to write the poems? Or is the neural net producing the poems a ghostwriter for its more famous conspecific?

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    May 30, 2017 @ 4:40 am

    Something to keep in mind is that examples of this kind are usually not a representative sample of the program's output, but rather the result of an extensive process of selection (and perhaps editing) by people who want to present the work in the most favorable possible light. So this poem may be the best of several hundred attempts, and some of the other ones may be much less impressive.

  9. Davek said,

    May 30, 2017 @ 6:25 am

    And how is that different from the published output of human writers?

  10. Draconaes said,

    May 30, 2017 @ 1:27 pm

    A human writer can possibly run such a selection process on itself, whereas the program's output must have the selection process run by others humans. Is this significant?

    [(myl) In fairness to the machines, editors have sometimes played a crucial role in the creation of famous poems and novels. But it would not surprise me if the ratio of wheat to chaff were still quite different.]

RSS feed for comments on this post