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Eureka machine beats poetry-writing bot by nearly 200 years


The writing of William Shakespeare is held up as one of the most significant expressions of creativity in human history - but now machines are trying to replicate his achievement.

Researchers have trained an artificial intelligence 'bot using around 2,600 real sonnets to give it the capacity to mimic the iambic pentameter and rhyming pattern of the Bard.

While the jury is still out on the actual quality of its writing, there's no doubt that it's an incredible piece of engineering by the team at IBM Research Australia, the University of Toronto, and University of Melbourne.

Restored Latin Verse Machine ‘Eureka’
The restored Latin Verse Machine ‘Eureka’ back in its home at the Grange in Street, Somerset. Copyright: Alfred Gillett Trust

But this is not the first time a machine has been built that can “create” poetry.

The Eureka was a poetry-compiling machine built sometime in the 1830s or 1840s by John Clark, a member of the prominent Quaker family who founded Clarks the shoemakers.

“He was kind of a crackpot inventor,” says Jason Hall, Associate Professor of English at Exeter University and PI on an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project to restore and research Eureka.

“John had all sorts of irons in the fire; he was genuine eccentric. But the Eureka machine was his masterwork, no doubt.”

According to Natalie Watson, Director of the Alfred Gillett Trust, a Somerset-based charity which preserves the heritage collections of C & J Clark Ltd., the Eureka machine had become quite degraded over time. Although there were accounts that it had been working as recently as the 1970s.

Eureka - or “The Hexameter Automation” as Clark dubbed it – consists of a large box full of gears and mechanics that can be spun rather like a fruit machine to produce lines of Latin poetry - accompanied by a rendition of the national anthem.

Its creator described it as having “some affinity to an animated being”.

“It is capable of producing around 26 million lines,” says Professor Hall. “We haven't read them all! But we know what it's capable of.”

Even to modern eyes the Eureka machine remains a genuinely remarkable piece of engineering - but it really fascinated the Victorians. In 1845 John Clark took his creation up to London and exhibited in the Egyptian Hall.

It was widely reported on in the contemporary press and it seems John made enough money to return home to Somerset, build himself a house on the proceeds and disappear into comfortable obscurity.

Professor Jason Hall
Professor Jason Hall. Copyright: University of Exeter

Professor Hall was determined to get the machine back into working order and tried for some time to secure funding. Then the AHRC announced its Science and Culture Innovation Scheme and his application was successful.

“With the help of specialist craftsmen and computer scientists we got the machine up and working - and found out much more about how it was made and how it worked in the process,” says Professor Hall.

Natalie Watson says: “We discovered that the engine that drives the whole thing was actually a kitchen spit for automatically turning meat and a lot of the other parts were repurposed from other sources.”

Conservation work also revealed the machine had originally been gilded rather than painted black as it was when work began. “It's been a really exciting project and I've learned so much from working with colleagues in different disciplines and professions,” says Professor Hall.

Inventor of the Latin Verse Machine, John Clark
Inventor of the Latin Verse Machine, John Clark. Copyright: Alfred Gillett Trust

“What really interests me about the Eureka machine - beyond the fact that its a fascinating artefact in itself – is the questions it throws up about creativity.

“When it first came to attention, the educated public would have spent a lot of time at school learning very formulaic Latin and Greek poetry, which then influenced their own writing.

“Many people were concerned that this was harming creativity and the Eureka machine raised a fascinating question: was it a mechanical ‘genius’ to be able to produce poetry based on what it had learned? Or were children somehow becoming like machines through their rote learning?

“With the IBM AI we have to ask: to what extent is it genuinely thinking and imagining? Or is it simply making choices based on a fixed range of possibilities, just as the Eureka machine did?”

Thanks to the efforts of Professor Hall and his colleagues, future generations can ask these questions for themselves and experience this fully working testimony to Victorian mechanical and intellectual curiosity.

“The ingenuity of the machine is amazing to see and we can actually run it now,” says Natalie Watson. “It's been wonderful to demonstrate it for visitors on occasion, and use it to talk about some of the principles of computer programming.

“We've learned such a lot - and been able to share that with our visitors.”

The Eureka machine was previously kept at the Clark’s Shoe Museum in Street, Somerset, and is now kept nearby at the Grange, the home of the Alfred Gillett Trust. You can find out more about the restoration project at the Alfred Gillett Trust website and the AHRC Science in Culture Theme website.

Watch the video: Poetry with Numbers: The Latin Verse Machine

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