The UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai was open between 1 October 2021 and 31 March 2022, offering an experience with poetry generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI, the Algorithm).  Visitors were asked to donate one word to the Algorithm, which then returned a couplet based on that word. The project opened up a global conversation around the positive benefits of poetry to humanity and we are delighted to share the project’s background and results in the Archive for you to explore. Each partner was asked to choose a section from the volume of couplets which the Algorithm produced, and you can hear the results below, also recorded by an AI voice, often with surprising results.  

The Algorithm project was inspired by one of Stephen Hawking’s final projects, his ‘Breakthrough Message’. Professor Hawking invited people worldwide to consider what message we might communicate to express ourselves as a planet should we one day encounter other advanced civilisations in space.  

Poetry, as a global medium capable of flowing through every community across continents and languages, was chosen as the perfect structure through which to communicate a truly collective message using cutting edge AI technology.  

Avantgarde, the design and content team lead, appointed the algorithm team IYOIYO to build an AI model which was trained to learn to write poems by feeding it with millions of words of English poetry. 15,000 poems from over 100 British Poets were fed to the AI – that’s half a million lines of poetry in total.  

Each visitor to the UK Pavilion donated a word to the AI (artificial intelligence) which generated a couplet of poetry from that word in return. Over six months, these couplets built into one unified collective message which was projected on the front façade of the UK Pavilion during the Expo show.  

As the AI began to recognise the structures and forms of poetry, it became more able to generate its own couplets by emulating the style of what it had read.  

Computer-generated poetry has a long history, but what makes this project so unique was the collaboration between a large number of developers and poetry experts working over an extended period to iteratively refine the output. 

 To ‘train’ the AI, IYOIYO worked with the poetry experts to analyse the generated text and refine the algorithm in the months leading up the Expo, ensuring the content and outputs remained on course.   

  • The Poetry Society promotes a recognition and appreciation of poetry, representing British poetry both nationally and internationally with over 4,000 members worldwide.
  • The Scottish Poetry Library is an unique national resource and advocate for the art of poetry, promoting and preserving Scottish poetry in particular.
  • The Poetry Archive produces, acquires and preserves recordings of poets reading their own work out loud and makes excerpts freely available online, alongside a dedicated Children’s Poetry Archive. Dr Tracey Guiry, Director of the Archive says: It was fascinating to see how quickly the AI learned, through trial and error, what words to use and how to put them together. Though I personally believe that poetry comes from authentic human emotion, including all its flaws, the poetry developed by the AI was still able to resonate with me, to create images in my mind which told their own unique story. This project raises questions about AI/human relationships, which we will all need to find answers for in future’. 
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IYOIYO in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture, the UK Pavilion Supporting Partner, ensured that the algorithm, while working well in development conditions, would also work as an engaging experience that visitors could interact with in real time. 

In the Pavilion structure itself, LUX Technical provide the controlling ‘brain’ that puts the poetry on display. At the same time the system LUX Technical created provides all this data back to the visitor on their own device. With the help of LUX Technical, Luke Halls ensured that the data the algorithm provided was able to be displayed on the different screens throughout the Pavilion, the collective message on the front façade and the donated words in the Choral Space. 

The UK Pavilion design was produced by the London and Dubai teams of the global brand agency, Avantgarde. It was conceived by award-winning UK artist and designer, Es Devlin OBE. Avantgarde and Es Devlin Studios collaborated with globally renowned teams of structural engineers, Atelier One, and sustainability engineers, Atelier Ten. Both teams will deliver the complex sculptural architecture of the pavilion, highlighting innovative, ecologically sound building techniques and materials. 

Photography provided by UK Department for International Trade.

Poems by The Algorithm – The Voice of the Pavilion

The Algorithm – Lines 19 to 23  - The Algorithm – The Voice of the Pavilion
The Algorithm – Lines 1422 to 1437 - The Algorithm – The Voice of the Pavilion
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