Department for International Trade creates AI poetry pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai

The algorithm will generate poetic couplets displayed on the installation.

DIT: immersive pavilion conceived by Es Devlin Studio
DIT: immersive pavilion conceived by Es Devlin Studio

The Department for International Trade has created an artificial intelligence-powered installation that will be the centre point of the UK's pavilion for the delayed Expo 2020 Dubai.

An algorithm will be inspired by words entered by visitors and generate poetic couplets to be displayed on the installation. The computer programme has studied a million lines of poetry from 15,000 poems written by more than 100 British poets. Over the course of the six months from October 2021 the expo display will change and evolve as more words are submitted via a web-based interface that can be accessed via visitors' smartphones.

Steve Austen-Brown, creative director at Avantgarde, producer of the project, explained: "Making the story we're telling really simple, easy and accessible was key. This includes the idea of what we call a 'digital companion': turning your own smart device that you know, and are very familiar with using, into that message system.

"You use your phone to contribute your word and we've created that web-based interface. Long gone are the days of the old school museum-like way of doing things."

The AI has been trained toward a "modern and timeless" voice inspired by the reference material while avoiding topics unsuitable for an international audience, with poetry experts from the Poetry Archive, The Poetry Society and Scottish Poetry Library training the computer to understand and refine its poetry output.

A 20-metre-high cone structure will showcase the poetic couplets on a series of LED panels on the front of the façade. If the 742 LED panels were put into one continuous vertical line, they would stretch over four times the height of Nelson's column. The couplets can also be viewed from inside the cone, where they'll be accompanied by an immersive musical soundscape.

Called "Collective message", the pavilion installation was inspired by the work of Professor Stephen Hawking's Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message initiatives, which are committed to looking for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth and determine what message Earth should hypothetically send.

Stuart Bradbury, managing director, Avantgarde told Campaign: "There are an estimated 25 million visits to the expo and we felt that we wanted to get them to contribute to the experience. We were inspired by Stephen Hawking with a focus on developing a collective message, a single message that could represent humanity. The UK is not an isolated voice but is part of that global message."

The theme of the UK Pavilion is "Innovating for a shared future". The pavilion will house a programme of talks from creative and innovative thinkers that will be complemented by a "best of British" food and drink showcase, including Michelin Star chefs, as well as family-friendly interactive experiences and artistic performances.

Artist Es Devlin designed the space and is working alongside brand agency Avantgarde to deliver the project with Google's Arts and Culture lab assisting on the algorithm.

There are also potential plans for people to get involved in the collective message remotely, as part of a wider plan to make the expo a hybrid event although nothing has yet been confirmed.

Expo 2020 Dubai is taking place from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022, having been pushed back 12 months as a result of the Covid pandemic. The UK's participation is led by the DIT with support from the devolved administrations and other UK government departments.