Can Computers be Creative?

I use the word creativity a lot on these blog pages. I firmly believe that every living person is creative. The tragedy is that many people have their creative dreams crushed so hard they never recover. Ai-Da is an Artificial Intelligence machine that paints, writes, and gives presentations. Can a computer be creative? Will it further crush human creativity? Or will it expand human creativity?

Photograph of Ai-Da, a humanoid figure with a life-like head & face and robotic mechanical arms & hands standing next to one of her pieces of impressionistic art below which is a sign that reads Ai-Da Robot, the world's first ultra-realistic robot artist. But can a computer be creative?

What Is Creativity?

Before we can intelligently decide whether a machine can be creative, we need to define creativity. In “You Don’t Have to be an Artist” I use the Merriam-Webster definition of creativity. It’s imprecise and vague. Trying to define creativity is difficult. It’s one of those things we say, “I know it when I see it.” 

Margaret Boden OBE, ScD, FBA, a research professor of cognitive science, published The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms in 1990. Within that book, she offers a philosophical definition of creativity. 

Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are newsurprising, and valuable.”

Margaret Boden OBE, ScD, FBA

Instead of asking the yes or no question “is that idea creative,” Boden suggests we ask, “how creative is it, and in just which way?” She also defines what she means by new, by surprising, and by valuable. 

What New Means

To define new, she distinguishes between psychological creativity (P-creativity) and historical creativity (H-creativity).

P-creativity involves coming up with a surprising, valuable idea that’s new to the person who comes up with it. It doesn’t matter how many people have had that idea before. But if a new idea is H-creative, that means that (so far as we know) no-one else has had it before: it has arisen for the first time in human history.”

Interalia Mag quoting Boden

What Surprising Means

In her definition, surprising has three different meanings. First, a surprising idea is something that is unfamiliar, or even unlikely. An unexpected idea, something that is part of a familiar idea but in a way you haven’t thought of before, is the second type of surprising. The third type of surprising, is the astonished reaction you have an idea you would have thought impossible before you saw/heard it.

Her definition and exploration of creativity is more complex than this and deserves a more detailed examination, but this definition will help us examine whether Ai-Da, an AI, is a creative machine.

Creative Artificial Intelligence

My first reaction to the idea of a creative artificial intelligence was an enormous surge of skepticism. 

 As human in appearance as Ai-Da, her jerky and distracting actions and her clear but halting speech annoyed me. I looked at her, listened to her, and dismissed her. She isn’t the creative one, it’s her human programmers, right? 

Then I applied Boden’s definition. Is Ai-Da’s art new? The answer is yes to both P-creativity and H-creativity. Is it surprising? Again, I’d have to answer yes. Is it valuable? That’s what I found questionable. Some people would pay money for the novelty of owning art by an AI. But was it valuable in any larger way? I was skeptical. 

I continued my research and discovered a different way to look at Ai-Da and my question, “can a computer be creative?”

The Intersection of Science and Creativity

Benedikte Wallace hates math. When she was growing up she loved art and dance and creative life. She also loved science. She saw math as an insurmountable wall between her two loves. And she despaired that she’d ever be able to find work in the intersection of those two. 

She says she’s still terrible at math, but she found a way. Wallace is a Ph.D. researcher at the RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Rhythm, Time and Motion at the University of Oslo.

She suggests a different way to approach my question.

She sees the computer as a creative partner, a tool. 

I think of and use my computer daily as a creative tool. Could it be a creative partner? I reluctantly agree that it could be.

Can Computers Be Creative

image of a human hand reaching with index finger forward on one side toward a robotic hand reaching in the same way toward the human hand on a black background with blue lines in a repetitive pattern that represent computers but can computers be creative?

Reducing an artificial intelligence machine like Ai-Da to the term computer is to dismiss it as an independent entity. I am a science fiction reader and author. So why do I dismiss Ai-Da as an independent entity? Because the idea makes me uncomfortable. Wallace uses terms that make me more comfortable. I can see Ai-Da as a creative tool to use. Except she is more than that. Just as I am more than the sum of my parts, Ai-Da is more than the sum of her numbers… more than her programming, even if it’s only a tiny bit more. Can computers be creative? Ai-Da is creative, but is she only as creative as her programming? Maybe. Perhaps her descendants will be more creative… and more accepted.

Can you see yourself collaborating with a future Ai-Da?

Can you see a future Ai-Da producing creative works like yours?

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