Over the weekend, a senior researcher at Google spoke about how he and his team are trying to build a computer that can be creative.
Douglas Eck, part of Google Brain, a deep-learning research project explained at Moogfest, a four-day music and technology festival in the US that he and his team are using TensorFlow, an open-source library for machine intelligence to investigate whether AI systems can be taught to create original pieces of music, art or even video.
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The inspiration behind the project, Eck explained, was to create a computer system that could create entirely new pieces of music on a regular basis.
While an impressive engineering feat, it completely misses the point of what creativity is, and its importance in helping us interpret, challenge and add meaning to our existence.
The origins of creativity
There are many theories on what creativity is, where it comes from and why it happens. There’s a great article here which looks at the five theoretical viewpoints on its origins.
The majority of these all attempt to explain that creativity tends to originate from people having unique experiences. These can be negative – depression, schizophrenia, some sort of isolation – or positive – being in environments that foster trust, empathy and security.
Franz Kafka, one of the 20th century’s most important writers was able to create such powerful work that explored themes of alienation, anxiety and guilt in part because of the exquisitely painful experiences he had as a child. The School of Life has a great 10-minute video about it.
Conversely, Albert Einstein, who changed how the world thought about physics and science more generally, declared, “love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.” He also went onto say,
One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.
A computer doesn’t deal with grief, love, pain, sadness, sorrow or any of the infinite combinations of emotion that make up the rich tapestry of our lives. We have necessity to be creative, computers, simply don’t.
Creativity is for humans, not machines
While the true origin of creativity is hotly contested among the key theorists in the space, the reason why we are creative is, I believe, to help us learn, grow, and deal with the things life throws at us.
To many people, “creative” describes a genius such as Michelangelo or Mozart who creates ground-breaking masterpieces, and is considered a leader in their field. That is just one aspect of creativity, or what theorists such as James Kaufman call ‘big-C’ creativity.
However, there are other types of creativity, what Anna Craft calls ‘little-c’ creativity. Little-c creativity is described by Edward de Bono, as “breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”.
Instead of focusing on making a masterpiece, little-c creativity is focused on creative thinking skills, and coming up with original ideas to improve anything from a school project to the way a factory works.
What both of these ideas say is that creativity is vital for all of us. Isolating creativity, as Google is trying to do, is like trying to grow wine in a laboratory.
The drink is the product of the amount of sun it received, the type of grape, where it grew, how long for, how it was harvested, how it was processed, how long it was fermented for, the bottle it was kept in, where it was kept and when it was finally drank. These are what makes the wine unique and special. Growing it artificially just ignores that.
What is creativity?
There is also a more subjective question over what creativity is. I subscribe to the idea that creativity emerges when an individual or group first copies what is out there, then combines the different things they have seen or witnessed, and then transforms them into something that we come to think as new.
Kirby Ferguson has a great TED talk on this idea.
One of the most intensely studied ‘creators’ was Pablo Picasso. How did he come to be the person we most recognize with Cubism and other types of artistic expression that defined the 20th century?
He was taught how to paint, by his father, an art teacher that taught students first by explaining how to mimic masters from the previous century. He attended the best art schools, that produced dozens of artists that all splintered and went off in different directions.
What steered Pablo in a different direction was an infinite number of things: the places he lived, the friends he made, the death of his sister, the geo-political climate in Spain at the time, his sexuality, the sexuality of others, and the billions of tiny things he saw, said and listened to during his lifetime.
His famous sketch, The Bull, above, shows a tiny fraction of how all of this influenced his work. The point is, the path creativity takes isn’t pre-defined. But Google seems to think it can be.
In Kirby’s TED Talk, he posits the question, “Is remixing a form of creativity, a production of the new on the shoulders of what precedes it, or is it just copying?”
Eck, in his talk over the weekend, admitted how difficult it was to format a machine to think about creativity in a way that Kirby describes. AI systems are, “very far from long narrative arcs.”
But in this instance, it’s missing the point of our need to create. It helps us cope, to learn and to find new ways of experiencing.
Handing that over to computers completely guts the philosophical purpose of creating and instead aims to quantify and mechanize one of the core tenets of what it means to be a human.
Eck said he sees the purpose of this idea to help computers be able to assist people in more meaningful ways. In one example, if a person has a wearable device that tracks heart rate sends a signal to the wearer’s smartphone to indicate he or she is stressed, an AI system designed to create music that person would find soothing could generate music for her.
If I was stressed, the idea that a computer is trying to calm me down would just make me worse. Creativity is a gift that we have, and we shouldn’t be so ready to give it away to a machine, just because we can.