Humans are not always the most literal of creatures. We make sense of the world through metaphors: The world is a stage. Love is a battlefield. Machines, however, are very literal. But what if we could teach robots how to create metaphors? 

That’s the idea behind Poetry for Robots, a collaboration between digital design agency Neologic Labs, the conference WebVisions, and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. It’s not just a flight of whimsy, though the idea of robot-churned poetry is pretty neat. (And, in the case of some Twitter bots, not that far from reality already.)

Anyone who has searched through a stock image archive for an abstract notion like “freedom” or “sadness” could benefit. If robots could sift through metaphors, drawing connections and patterns between two abstract ideas like people do, it could make search engines more useful. Image searches could incorporate common metaphors. Searching for “time” might bring up sand, for instance. 

Poetry for Robots has a literary inspiration. In a lecture at Harvard in the late 1960s, the Argentine literary icon Jorge Louis Borges argued that the range of possible metaphors in the world isn’t necessarily infinite. Writers tend to return to the same themes of metaphor, connecting the same ideas over and over again. Borges uses the example of stars being like eyeslike stars looking down upon us. Borges may have been a little ahead of his time, but now algorithms can test his idea. 

First, the research team will crowdsource poetry written in response to 120 images. The site features stock imagery of things like waterfalls, corn fields at sunset, soaring birds, and train stations, designed to get users inspired to pen a quick verse. This database of poetry connected to images will hopefully then teach machines how to connect abstract ideas. Eventually, computers might even be able to write the poetry themselves. 

The project is still in the midst of collecting data, so unfortunately, there are no examples of robotic verse just yet. But go ahead and send in your own poetic musings here

[h/t: Motherboard via Open Culture]