Google, the Poet

In the Magazine
Onur D'Angel/Getty

TYPE A few words into Google’s search bar and you’ll see four predictive suggestions pop up in the space just below. It’s a bit of technology the search giant calls Google Instant: “a search enhancement that shows results as you type.” It was developed with the intent to help users get faster and better search results, because, the company says, people read more quickly than they type. What it wasn’t intended to do was make Google a poet. But it has—and a quite good one, at that.

If you were to type “what does it ...” into the search box on a recent Friday afternoon, Google might have suggested the following queries, based on previous search activity by real-life Google users.

what does it mean
what does it mean when your eye twitches
what does it mean when your poop is green
what does it feel like to die

Read the lines aloud with conviction, a touch of pensive melancholy or even theatrical gloom, and the randomness of the four phrases suddenly fades away, replaced by something intentional-sounding, like, well, poetry.

Sampsa Nuotio, a former tech entrepreneur living in Finland, stumbled upon the beauty of machine-generated poetics late last year. He had been mid–Google query when the phone rang, leaving “Am I a ...” sitting there in the search box as he answered the phone. When he returned to the screen, ready to complete the search, the machine had created the following quasi-lyrical text:

am i an alcoholic
am i fit to drive
am i allergic to dogs
tell me, Andrew, am i

“It was like a really bad and funny poem,” Nuotio says. Immediately, he wanted more. The 37-year-old tested different lines, generated more poems, and, eventually, collected his favorites on Facebook, where they were met with enthusiasm. He also put together a Tumblr blog titled Google Poetics.

What began as an amusing diversion—available only in Finnish—has now expanded into a world of algorithmic poetry in 12 different languages, complete with fast-growing Facebook and Twitter accounts that promote the best of users’ submissions. Altogether, Google Poetics counts approximately 50,000 readers who enthusiastically follow—and share—the humorous, and sometimes dark, prose. “People seem to enjoy the thought of Google [as] a poet—as if there was an artificial intelligence with feelings ... spewing out these self-deprecating poems,” he says, comparing the auto poet to an “emo robot.”

Nuotio has yet to cash in on Google Poetics, though to do so is in the works. The Finn has an agent in New York and hopes to start approaching publishers “pretty soon.” In the meantime, the stanzas are coming out as fast as the team can type in (sometimes very existential) search terms. When asked of the appeal of the poems, Nuotio says: “It’s this sort of in-your-face and too-much-information glimpse of humanity.” Because, as a recent Google poem reminds us, ultimately we are the machine:

what if
what if God was one of us
what if I told you
what if there was no Google

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