Trurl's Poetry Machine

In past years, I’ve enjoyed reading ’50s and ’60s science fiction — books that comically mispredicted the trajectory of science in some ways (lots of talking on corded phones, even if the phones transmit video or holograms), but miraculously bullseyed other aspects:

In the 1965 short story “Trurl’s Electronic Bard” by Stanisław Lem, inventor Trurl seeks to create a poetry-writing machine to wow his rival, inventor Klapaucius.

Trurl at first fails to train the machine adequately, but later realizes he simply must train it to reproduce all of human history before it’ll be ready to write poetry.

Upon meeting the machine, Klapaucius asks it to “…compose a poem—a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!!” Klapaucius clearly expects this to be too much for the machine to muster, but it produces the following — a brief summary of the biblical story of Samson’s fateful haircut at the hand of his wife, Delilah:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.

She scissored short. Sorely shorn,

Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,

Silently scheming,

Sightlessly seeking

Some savage, spectacular suicide.

I can’t guess how long it took Stanisław to compose this remarkable little poem. But it took GPT-4 about ten seconds to write this one:

Shears snipped strands, severing sacred symbol

Sorrow surged, shattering shattered soul

Spiteful spouse smirked, smugly satisfied

Sword swiftly swung, slicing sly snake

Silence settled, solemnly saluting sacrifice

She smiled softly, seeing stars shine

Lem’s short story goes on to describe the public reaction to the machine:

There were many poet protests staged, demonstrations, demands that the machine be served an injunction to cease and desist. But no one else appeared to care. In fact, magazine editors generally approved: Trurl’s electronic bard, writing under several thousand different pseudonyms at once, had a poem for every occasion, to fit whatever length might be required, and of such high quality that the magazine would be torn from hand to hand by eager readers.


…it was much worse with the younger poets. One, for example, as powerful in body as his verse was in imagery, beat Trurl to a pulp. And while the constructor lay in the hospital, events marched on. Not a day passed without [a poet’s] suicide or a funeral; picket lines formed around the hospital.

But when he approached the machine, limping slightly, it noticed the pliers in his hand and the grim glitter in his eye, and delivered such an eloquent, impassioned plea for mercy, that the constructor burst into tears, threw down his tools and hurried back to his room, wading through new works of genius, an ocean of paper that filled the hall chest-high from end to end and rustled incessantly.

[“The Google engineer who thinks the company’s AI has come to life”. (2022, Washington Post)]

Perceptrons were only about 20 years old and had not yet been shown by Minsky to be incapable of solving XOR when this was written. In that context, I particularly like Trurl’s electronic bard’s poem about “love and tensor algebra”:

Come, let us hasten to a higher plane,

Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,

Their indices bedecked from one to n,

Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

Come, every frustum longs to be a cone,

And every vector dreams of matrices.

Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:

It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space

Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways

Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,

We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I’ll grant thee random access to my heart,

Thou’lt tell me all the constants of thy love;

And so we two shall all love’s lemmas prove,

And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,

Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,

Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,

Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not—for what then shall remain?

Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes,

A root or two, a torus and a node:

The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine!

The product of our scalars is defined!

Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind

Cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,

I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.

Bernoulli would have been content to die,

Had he but known such a²cos(2 Ø)!

Written on April 12, 2023
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