Burns Night: 'Robot Burns' and the verse that keeps writing beyond the bard's grave

Prolific during his short life, the verse keeps coming long after the death of Scotland’s bard given the activities of ‘Robot Burns’.

Poetry in the the style of Robert Burns is now being auto generated by artificial intelligence, with the results imparting shades of the work of the poet, whose life and work will be celebrated at Burns Night tonight.

Perry Gibson, a PhD computing science student at Glasgow University, ran 6,000 lines of Burns’s poetry through AI platform GPT-3, which identifies themes, emotions and sentiment in language. Now his website Robot Burns Infinite produces poetry at the push of a button.

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Mr Gibson said the verse emulated the structure of Burns and some of the rhyming qualities of his work. He said: “I downloaded around 6,000 lines of Burns poetry and I basically trained this model to try and make Burns poetry. It worked quite well.

The Burns Infinite website generates poetry in the style of Robert Burns using Artificial Intelligence. PIC: Contributed.

“It’s going to generate some random lines that are going to look like Burns. It knows what a Burns poem is going to look like.”

Mr Gibson has gone on to develop his original idea, which in 2020 resulted in a short book Robot Burns, so users can select themes for their poem. "I am still working a bit to make the themes work a bit better, but it can sometimes reflect what you want,” he said.

A poem generated in the theme of ‘love’ resulted in the verse: “In the early dawn, I saw a maiden/Who soon to me shall be known/And with a tear-wreathend face/I vowed eternal love.”

Another auto-generated verse added: “The poet, with rapture, transports the hearer/The prose, with boldness, strikes the censor/The law, a guardian of the national rights/Is not the loser by the union.”

Perry Gibson, a PhD student in computing science at Glasgow University, is behind the 'Robot Burns' project. PIC: Contributed.

Mr Gibson said the AI had been trained by scanning “tens of millions” of websites, most of which are written in modern English.

He said: "But it has also been shown 6,000 lines of Burns poetry and so it now has a decent enough idea about what Scots looks like. I think what is interesting is that, if I had a bit more time, what would happen if you showed it 50,000 lines of Scots language, and it knows more Scots, could you make a better Burns poem? The more you give these things, the better you will do.”

Mr Gibson said people were now thinking about how AI could be used for “creative purposes”. He said: "Of course, there are always concerns about how do we make sure that it is being done fairly and that we are not ripping people off.

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"Burns is long dead and his work is out of copyright. Copyright has value because it means that people are getting fair recognition and being paid for their work. After a certain point though, I think that things should belong to everyone.

"Some people are using AI in ways that perhaps bend, ignore copyright and I think some artists have rightfully got some concerns about that. There are still a lot of questions we should ask and the debate is ongoing.”

Mr Gibson embarked on the project following the suicide of a friend, who died around Burns Night in 2016, with proceed from his book and website going to the Samaritans.

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