HomeArtificial IntelligenceNovelist J.G. Ballard was experimenting with computer-generated poetry 50 years before ChatGPT...

Novelist J.G. Ballard was experimenting with computer-generated poetry 50 years before ChatGPT was invented

The novelist and short story author J.G. Ballard, is thought for conjuring warped and reimagined versions of the world he occupied. Dealing with strange exaggerations of realities and sometimes detailing the breakdown of social norms, his unconventional works are hard to categorise.

Sitting on the sting of reality, these unsettling visions often provoked controversy. Eschewing a science-fiction of the distant future, Ballard described his own work as being set in “a sort of visionary present”.

Today, as we contemplate generative AI writing texts, composing music and creating art, Ballard’s visionary present yet again has something prescient and fresh to inform us.

In an interview from 2004 the creator Vanora Bennett suggested to Ballard that he writes about “what’s nearly to occur in a given community”. Asked about what “sort of real-life event” inspired the ideas in his fiction Ballard responded:

I just have a sense in my bones: there’s something odd occurring, and I explore that by writing a novel, by trying to search out the unconscious logic that runs below the surface and in search of the hidden wiring. It’s as if there are all these strange lights, and I’m in search of the wiring and the fuse box.

The topics in Ballard’s fiction incessantly reveal just how highly attuned he was to the subtleties of the emerging technological and social shifts that were, as he puts it, just under the surface. The fuse box of society was often rewired in his ideas.

And with generative AI there may be undoubtedly something odd occurring, to which Ballard’s attention seems to have been drawn long before it even happened.

Author J. G. Ballard, who wrote famous novels like Crash and Empire of the Sun, in March 1965.

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

As well as the varied editions of OpenAI’s now infamous ChatGPT, which produces custom-made texts in response to transient prompts, there are a selection of other applications emerging that mechanically create cultural forms. Google’s Verse by Verse is an “AI-powered Muse”, where you choose a poet together with a handful of criteria, comparable to variety of syllables and poem type, and it helps the user to finish a poem by producing lines in response to the opening words entered into the system. Sora is claimed to permit you to create video from text instructions. Different versions of DALL.E can turn text suggestions into visual artistic images. In the sphere of music, applications like AIVA, Loudly and MuseNet can actively compose music in your behalf.

This is a snapshot of a rapidly and expanding range of such systems. They have inevitably brought with them deep-rooted questions on human creativity and what we understand culture to be. Nick Cave’s well-known response to song lyrics written by AI in his writing style was one powerful and widely shared response to the perceived lack of “inner being” behind the words. It was, Cave thought, simply the mimicry of creative thought. Others at the moment are wondering if AI spells an end for the human author.

While these debates continued, I discovered similar ones taking form over 50 years ago. Looking through the archive of an old arts magazine which Ballard used to edit, I discovered that he was writing about this futuristic concept way back within the Nineteen Sixties, before occurring to experiment with the earliest type of computer-generated poetry within the Seventies.

What I discovered did greater than simply reveal echoes up to now: Ballard’s vision actually reveals something recent to us about these recent developments in generative AI.

The surprise of computer generated poetry

Listening recently to the audiobook version of Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life, one very short passage looked as if it would speak directly to those contemporary debates about generative artificial intelligence and the perceived power of so-called large language models that create content in response to prompts. Ballard, who was born in 1930 and died in 2009, reflected on how, throughout the very early Seventies, when he was prose editor at Ambit (a literary quarterly magazine that published from 1959 until April 2023) he became keen on computers that would write:

I wanted more science in Ambit, since science was reshaping the world, and fewer poetry. After meeting Dr Christopher Evans, a psychologist who worked on the National Physical Laboratories, I asked him to contribute to Ambit. We published a remarkable series of computer generated poems which Martin said were pretty much as good as the true thing. I went further, they were the true thing.

Ballard said nothing else about these poems within the book, nor does he reflect on how they were received on the time. Searching through Ambit back-issues issues from the Seventies I managed to locate 4 items that seemed to be within the series to which Ballard referred. They were all seemingly produced by computers and published between 1972 and 1977.

Front page of a magazine fromm the 119770s.
The cover of an edition of Ambit from 1974.
David Beer

The first two are collections of what may very well be described as poetry. In each cases each of those little poems gathered together has its own named creator (more of this below), but the entire collection carries the creator names: Christopher Evans and Jackie Wilson (1972 and 1974). Ballard described Evans as a “hoodlum scientist” with “long black hair and craggy profile” who “raced around his laboratory in a pair of American sneakers, jeans and denim shirt open to disclose a iron cross on a gold chain”.

The 1972 collection is labelled with the overarching title “The Yellow Back Novels”, a play on an off-the-cuff term used for popular fiction novels, and the 1974 collection is entitled “Machine Gun City”. Both include transient notes that give further glimpses into how these poems were computer generated and into Ballard’s thoughts on them.

The poems themselves are, it must be said, a difficult read. I wouldn’t need to speak for him, but reading the pieces it becomes hard to imagine that Ballard genuinely agreed with the assessment that they were “pretty much as good as the true thing” or, indeed, that they were the “real thing” – there could have been a component of provocation in such statements. Quality aside though, there’s something intriguing in how today’s debates across the generation of content – pushing us toward questions of what creativity is and even what it means to be human – have a precursor in these Seventies computer-generated pieces.

Ballard’s plot

Ballard’s view of the poems in 1974 seems consistent with the more moderen comment included in his autobiography. A brief introductory note to the second collection of pieces opens with what is claimed to be the “text of a letter from prose editor J.G. Ballard advising rejection of a widely known author’s copy”. Apparently Ballard wrote the next, which is quoted in brackets before the short pieces:

B’s stuff is absolutely terrible – he’s an absolute dead end and doesn’t seem to grasp it … Much more interesting is that this computer generated material from Chris, which I strongly feel we must always use a piece of. What is interesting about these detective novels is that they were composed throughout the course of a lecture Chris gave at an enormous psychological conference in Kyoto, Japan, with the stories being generated by a terminal on the stage linked by satellite with the pc in Cleveland, Ohio. Now that’s something to present these English so-called experimental writers to take into consideration.

Whether these little computer generated texts are stories, novels or poems is unclear and possibly is a secondary issue to the automated production of culture on display here. Ballard seems to have been taken with the brand new possibilities, and likewise seems to just like the provocation it presents to other writers.

Text of a poem from a magazine
One of a set of poems from 1972, believed to have been computer-generated.
David Beer

The image of the terminal on stage making poems while its creator is occupied talking to the audience is a robust one, conjured here by Ballard. He was clearly impressed with the innovation and what it suggested about creativity. Keeping his eye out for odd developments, he was intrigued by the brand new kinds of composition.

Yet, we perhaps shouldn’t take his note at face value. The playful framing and anarchic tone warn us from being too literal. And there may be another excuse for us to tread rigorously. Ballard’s interest was prone to have been piqued by these events as he had written a brief story featuring machines that would perform the precise task of writing poetry some 11 years previously. The short story itself seems to present a more questioning tackle what it might mean for a pc to write down and create prose.

Life imitating art

Written in 1961, Ballard’s story “Studio 5, The Stars” features an editor of “an avante-garde poetry review” working on the following issue. Sounds familiar. The poets he edits usually are all using automated “Verse-Transcribers”, which all of them seek advice from with established familiarity as VTs. These VT machines mechanically produce poems in response to set criteria. Poetry has been perfected by these machines and so the poets see little reason in writing independently of their VTs. On being passed one poem hot from a VT the editor within the story doesn’t even feel the necessity to read it. He already knows that it’s going to be suitable.

The poets have turn out to be used to working with their VT machines, but their reliance upon the machines for creative inspiration starts to turn out to be unsettled by events. At one point the editor is asked what he thinks is flawed with modern poetry. Despite seemingly being a powerful enthusiast of the automation of creativity he wonders if the issues are “principally a matter of inspiration”. He admits he “used to write down a good amount … years ago, however the impulse faded as soon as I could afford a VT set”.

Ballard’s story predicts that after creating poetry becomes a technical matter, the necessity to interact within the practice of writing evaporates. In place of creativity, the editor suggests, is a “technical mastery” that’s “simply an issue of pushing a button, choosing metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial, there’s no need for sacrifice, no ideal to invent to make the sacrifice worthwhile”. Not too far then from the kinds of prompts on which today’s generative AI relies to trigger its outputs. Often, as we saw with the examples of applications previously mentioned, a set of criteria, a phrase or any form of written instruction are used to initially direct the outputs of generative AI.

A mysterious figure named Aurora, the story’s antagonist, proclaims dismissively that “they’re not poets but mere mechanics”. When all of the VT sets within the local area are wrecked by Aurora to “preserve a dying art”, the absence of human creativity is exposed. Not a machine is left in a single piece, even “Tony Sapphire’s 50-watt IBM had been hammered to pieces and Raymond Mayo’s 4 recent Philco Versomatics had been smashed beyond hope of repair”.

The editor is left with the following issue of the magazine to fill and no automated copy to fill it. There is shock at Aurora’s suggestion to “Write some yourself!”. Tony, the editor’s associate, offers some consolation, reminding him archly that “Fifty years ago a number of people wrote poetry, but nobody read it. Now nobody writes it either. The VT set merely simplifies the entire process”.

Front cover of a novel.
A replica of the primary edition of Ballard’s High Rise from 1975.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In Ballard’s 1961 story it is just the sudden absence of functioning machines that drives the poets to begin writing creatively again. The reliance on the VT is broken. The story closes with the ripping up of a paper order for 3 recent VT sets. The story would seem like a warning against the automation of creativity and the implications it may need, should it arrive. In the Seventies it arrived in rudimentary form, and Ballard seems, on the surface not less than, to have had a quite different response to its presence.

How did the pc write the poems?

Each little piece included within the 1972 and 1974 collections features a title, creator, and 6 lines of text. Those six lines are highly formulaic. Some of that pattern may be discerned just by glancing across the various opening lines. These include gambits comparable to “the thunder of the motors fractured the lake”, “the roar of the jets rocked the home”, the evocative “the fury of the turbos fractured the group” and “Dr Zozoloenda pondered because the plane lurched”.

Though the 1974 pieces seem a bit of more varied than the 1972 versions, they preserve the identical kinds of formulas. Part of the rationale for the seeming consistency of form is to be present in the transient endnote by Evans and Wilson that closes the primary collection. They start with the claim that:

These mini SF novels have been generated by a pc programmed to write down them, for eternity if needs be, given the command RUN JWSF.

RUN is a classic computer command to initiate a program. It’s not clear what JWSF stands for however the vision is of a perpetual writing machine that never stops and runs perpetually. They admit that this program itself is, as they put it, “immensely easy”. They then proceed to stipulate very briefly how it really works, indicating that the “computer selects randomly from a pool of specially chosen key words or phrases”. So that is randomly generated text from a curated pool of words.

There are also structures during which the randomly chosen words are placed. They explain that “the primary line of the story essentially consists of the pc completing the phrase: THE (BLANK) OF THE (BLANK) (BLANKED) THE (BLANK)”.

According to Evans and Wilson, inside this opening-line structure, “the blanks being filled in by searches through pools of words, thus ending up with THE WINE OF THE MOTORS FRACTURED THE HOUSE or THE RUSH OF THE HELIOS SCORCHED THE DESERT”. The two examples they supply capture the texture of most of the opening lines within the short pieces. The outputs are repetitive and predictable while also remaining strange. One mystery that’s left is how the pools of words were created.

The use of structure alongside randomness is presented as providing an almost limitless source of latest content that may be produced on demand. Evans and Wilson claim that their approach, “produces 10,000 possible unique sentences”. Following the opening sentence, they explain that “line two is a random number of ten complete sentences. Line three reverts to the strategy of line one. The fourth line is again a random alternative of ten complete sentences, and so forth”.

This alternating structure of the lines is on the core of all of the pieces generated and published in 1972 and 1974. The second mystery is how the whole sentences which might be randomly chosen for the alternate lines were produced and chosen. There don’t seem like another traces, so these details are prone to remain unknown.

The perpetual generation of fabric is first framed when it comes to the variety of possible sentences. Yet something more reflective is introduced too, which is the generation of ideas. Evans and Wilson ask themselves: “How many original and unique SF mini-novels can the pc generate before running out of ideas?”

Their seemingly speculative answer, given we don’t understand how many words are included in those pools, is solely that “typing at a rate of ten characters a second, this is able to take (reasonably roughly) 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (100 quintillion, or ten to the 20 th power) years which might probably see the Universe come and go a number of times”. The generation of poems by this machine is, in other words, with none real limits. Clearly, we are able to query if it actually has any “ideas” in the primary place.

As with the content, the creator names attached to every six-line piece are also computer generated. The authors’ names are again “chosen from a pool of suitable SF-type names, paired in the identical random way”. What constitutes an SF type name will not be made clear, but a number of the creator names generated are things like Z.Q. Johnson, Blade Sinatra, Frank Archer, Marsha Fantoni, Blade Van Vargon and even Tagon “X”.

Adding names humanises the writing ultimately, despite the fact that the names themselves mostly appear to be quite obviously made up. Giving these pieces named authors actually draws attention to questions of authorship and the intersection of human creators with technology.

Computer generated poems or a hoax?

The subsequent articles published in Ambit in 1976 and 1977 don’t appear to follow the promise made in 1974 that these little pieces can be appearing in an “unending stream in Ambit”. Instead they modified direction somewhat, moving from computers creating text to interacting with humans. The 1976 piece titled “Hallo, your computer calling”, again credited to Chris Evans and Jackie Wilson, provided a wierd if prophetic interaction introduced as “an experiment to see whether computers may help doctors to diagnose illnesses”.

A 1977 piece “The Invisible Years” is much more baffling. This time credited to Tim Bax, J.G. Ballard, Chris Evans and Ronald Sandford, the piece is presented in awkward angular boxes and is described with the opening statement: “This 12 months Ballard answers the query of Chris Evans and a pc. To drawings conceived by Mr. Ronald Sandford”. That bizarre intervention seems to have been the ultimate instalment on this series of computer-generated contributions.

A page of text from a 1970s magazine.
The story, The Invisible Years, from Ambit’s 1977 edition.
David Beer

We might begin to query, especially with their strange framing and increasingly bizarre content, whether these are literally computer generated texts in any respect, or, given the form of publication and people involved in them, if that is another type of expression, perhaps a parody or satire even. The chapter in Ballard’s Miracles of Life during which Evans is discussed suggests that their collaboration spread across into fictional ideas too. It may even be a hoax of some sort, designed to proffer questions of what automation means for culture and concepts.

It is now unattainable to confirm what exactly was happening or what, if any, technology was getting used. It seems likely that a pc program was involved ultimately with the ultimate product, and whether or not they are fully automated bits of writing is definitely a side issue when considering the importance of those little works. Whatever it’s that we’re seeing in these strange automated poems, this case reveals something in regards to the form of interest within the computerised generation of ideas and cognition that’s playing out in additional advanced form today. This case from the Seventies is indicative of how this logic has developed.

The enthusiasm for the opportunity of computers writing is obvious even back then. Yet the apparent enthusiasm attached to those Ambit poems may also have been a response, and even an ironic and playful response to, the emergent computer systems and even AI that were developing within the Nineteen Sixties and 70s. The questions around creativity and human value which might be implicit in Ballard’s short story perhaps hint at this. But the kinds of questions, outcomes and implications of computer-generated writing were yet to solidify into the form of debates we see rumbling today.

A sensitivity to automated creativity

If we tackle face value the outline of the generative processes described within the notes that accompanied these poems, and likewise the mention in Ballard’s much later autobiographical account, then the important thing difference between the little pieces Ballard commissioned and today’s popular turn to AI is the move from randomness to probability. The generation of poems that draw randomly on curated pools of text is kind of different to producing texts based on calculations of probability from large data sets. Yet the underlying sensibility and logic is similar, each are informed and motivated by a mutating will to automate more elements of social and cultural life.

Whether what we’re seeing with these Seventies poems is real or whether it is some type of performance or playful satire, it still reveals something of the emerging attitudes to the probabilities of computational creativity in its very early forms.

Ballard’s enthusiastic response to the brand new possibilities suggested by the poems within the Seventies contrasts with the more dystopian vision in his 1961 short story. Ballard seems to embody what I even have called the tensions of algorithmic pondering – by which I mean the unresolvable and competing forces that push concurrently in numerous directions after we are confronted with advancing automation. On one side now we have the issue of the removal of the human from human activities, on the opposite now we have the removal of data from cultural creation. The short story and the poems in Ambit each capture the stress that accompany today’s AI generated text, art, and music.

We are perhaps being shown from different perspectives, to make use of Ballard’s own phrasing, the wiring and fuse box of creativity. Ballard’s attention was drawn towards “something odd occurring”. That oddness is becoming much more profound because the use and applications of generative AI proceed to expand.


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