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?

Would You Fly Like Iron Man?

Humans have dreamed of flying since they first saw birds. Determined men and women have made the dreams come true with heavier than air aircraft. Now men and women are bringing the dream of human flight using jetpacks. Would you like to fly like Iron Man?

Flying Ironman Toy, would you fly like Ironman if you could?

The Dream

Seven years before the Wright brothers completed their first manned, powered, controlled flight, a novel called The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) mentioned a man hovering low with “the look of a pack on his back.”

The cover of Amazing Stories featured a man flying with a jet pack in 1928. A year after Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. 

Over the years, countless other stories and films and cartoons have used a jetpack. I’ll bet you can name one or two you’ve seen portrayed in film or fiction.

Early History

Public Domain

The Russian inventor Alexander F. Andreev created the first pack design in 1919. Andreev received a patent for the  oxygen-and-methane-powered pack with wings. But there is no record that anyone built or tested it. 

In 1956, Justin Capră informed the American Embassy that he invented a “flying rucksack” in Romania. No one was interested. 

Project Grasshopper was a jump belt created by Thiokol Corporation engineers, Garry Burdett and Alexander Bohr in 1958. It used high pressure compressed nitrogen for thrust. It lifted a serviceman twenty-three feet in the air and could run up to thirty-one miles per hour. But lacking funding, they did no further testing.

The U.S. Army Is Interested

In 1959, Aerojet General Corporation won a U.S. Army contract to devise a jet pack or rocket pack. The Army called the project a “Small Rocket Lift Device” or SRLD.

In early 1960, Richard Peoples made his first tethered flight with his Aeropack.

In August of that year, the military learned of Bell Aerosystems engineer, Wendell F. Moore, already several years into developing a personal jet device. The Amy commissioned Bell Aerosystems to develop their SRLD with Wendell Moore as chief project engineer. He developed the rocket belt based on Justin Capră’s 1956 design.

The Space Age

April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Alas, we still can’t fly like Ironman.

On April 20, 1961, Harold “Hal” Graham completed the first successful untethered rocket belt flight rising eighteen inches off the ground. The flight lasted thirteen seconds and covered 112 feet. The Army terminated its contract with Bell after Moore reported that the belt used up its fuel in twenty-one seconds. It was difficult to pilot, and the loud engine noise was unacceptable.

In 1965, Bell Aerosystems concluded a new contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a jet pack with a turbojet engine. Complex to maintain, the pack had a short flight duration. It was bulky and loud. Any GI wearing the pack would be a target. The Army ended the project.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the moon.

Small Successes

Powerhouse Productions manufactured the Rocketbelt (June 1994). It provided thirty seconds of flight. The Rocketbelt flew during Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour.

Powerhouse Productions organizes Rocketbelt performances at parades, Super Bowls, races, and on television shows.

In 2008, Martin Jetpack, a New Zealand-based manufacturer, demonstrated a personal flying device. But it didn’t use jets.


martinjetpack / CC

Winged Jet Packs

Various inventors turned to developing turbojets and wings and wing suits in the 2000s. Visa Parviainen jumped from a hot air balloon with the jet engines attached to his feet.

An airplane lifted Swiss ex-military and commercial pilot Yves Rossy to altitude. He wore a winged pack with rigid airplane-type carbon-fiber wings. The wings unfold while in free-fall, and he then can fly horizontally for several minutes, landing with the help of a parachute.

Many others hope to develop a successful winged jetpack, including Fritz Unger in Germany.

True Jet Packs

Jetpack Aviation demonstrated a true jet pack in front of the Statue of Liberty in November 2015

In 2017, Richard Browning of Gravity Industries revealed his jet pack at a TED talk in Vancouver.

Browning and his company continue to refine the jet pack.

Would You Fly Like Iron Man?

In 2019 former Mythbuster, Adam Savage, built a titanium Iron Man suit modeled directly from Marvel Studios, hoping to fly like Iron Man. Savage reached out to Browning. And together, they did it. .

Today, Browning’s jet pack has new possibilities. Watch this demonstration of a paramedic with a jet pack.

This video from Dubai shows another real-world use for jet packs. (Note the jet packs in use may not be from Browning and Gravity). 

Would You Fly?

Right now regular folk can learn to fly Browning’s jetpacks for fun. Browning has an electric version (battery run) jetpack. He says that battery technology must advance before that version will be practical and affordable.

I’ve dreamed of the Jetson’s car, a flying car. But what if we all could be Rocketman or Rocketwoman? Instead of a bike, a motorcycle or a scooter, can you see yourself jetting to work? The occasional accident might be spectacular in a horrific way. But, like riding bikes, wouldn’t it give you a rush of freedom? I sure would like to try. Would you fly like Iron Man?

Will Your Child Fall in Love with a Cyborg?

Imagine it’s 2050, the pandemic is long over. Cyborgs (beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts) walk the streets of your town. Will your child fall in love with a cyborg? The beau has a brain-computer-interface (BCI). Maybe he or she has an artificial limb or two. Cyborgs common enough your child or grandchild could befriend or fall in love with one? Seriously? That’s what some forward-looking companies think might happen. But before we consider the future, let’s look at the development of BCI.

Discovery of Brain Waves

EEG, brain waves, an essential discovery on the way to creating a cyborg

Brain-computer-interfaces, also known as brain-machine-interfaces (BMI), begins their story in 1875. Richard Canton discovered electrical signals in animal brains. His discovery inspired Hans Berger to discover the human electroencephalogram (EEG) on July 6, 1924. The EEG measures brainwaves. Today it is invaluable. Its used to diagnose and treat neurological diseases (seizures, brain tumors, etc.)

Computers and Imagination

Illustration of a computer screen showing a brain--an idea waiting to become a cyborg

Konrad Zuse, a German, created the first programmable computer between 1936-1938.

It was also in the 1930s when science fiction authors such as John C. Campbell (John Scott Campbell) and Edmond Hamilton wrote and published stories about transferring memories and personalities into computers.

Tommy Flowers developed and demonstrated the first electric programmable computer, Colossus. In 1943.

IBM introduced its first scientific computer, the 701, in 1953.

By the 1950s, there were many science fiction stories about uploading and restoring brains via computers.

Development: Using Brain Waves

In 1963, an Oxford scientist claimed he’d figured out how to use human brain waves to control a simple slide projector.

By the 1980s, neuroscientists had figured out that if you use an implant to record signals from groups of cells in, say, the motor cortex of a monkey, and then you average all their firings together, you can figure out where the monkey means to move its limb—a finding many regarded as the first major step toward developing brain-controlled prostheses for human patients. Wired.com

But the bare wires and the jelly-like substance of the brain made for a notoriously unstable combination. Eventually it wouldn’t work at all.
In 1996, the FDA approved the implantation of Phil Kennedy’s “cone electrodes” in a human patient. Over time, that first patient controlled a computer cursor with his brain.

The Limitations

Connectors to the implants, electronics, and system engineering are some current limitations of these BCIs. An electrode lifespan of a five-year maximum is another limitation. And brain surgery every five years increases one’s risk of complications, means more recovery time, and more costs.

More and More Research

The Utah Array is a patented microelectrode array technology. Surgeons can implant it into human brains, spinal cords, or peripheral nerves. It has up to 256 electrodes and has been FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording since the 1990s. These folks aren’t a cyborg yet, they’re research subjects. Right?

Several research groups have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.

In 2017 Elon Musk founded Neuralink. Their website states they are developing “the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.”

By 2019, Neuralink’s interdisciplinary team announced that they had “created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain.”

We don’t know yet what 3000 electrodes in your brain will help you do. But with that many electrodes, could a quadriplegic walk? Would the person with that implant be a cyborg

In 2019, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that they implanted electrodes in the brain of a “mostly” paralyzed person. The electrodes enabled him to have “mind control” of motorized prosthetic arms.

Is a Cyborg Coming to Your Future?

A cyborg's robotic hand points its index finger toward a human hand  pointing its index finger at the cyborg's hand

From the Six Million Dollar Man to The Matrix, from Man Plus to Cyberpunk, writers have imagined a connection between man and machine. And from EEGs to brain implants, advances in biotechnology are marching forward. Will it change our humanity as I posited in November 2019? Some predict that the technology will be in common use by 2050. What if your child falls in love with a cyborg? Or your grandchild. Do you think most people will accept cyborgs or will cyborg be uncool and social outcasts?

Organ Farms In Space

Space. The Final Frontier. Not a human friendly environment. Star Trek voyagers didn’t have to worry about injuries in space. They had a miraculous medical lab. We may not have that medical lab yet, but we’re getting there. The experiments may be small today, but someday we may have organ farms in space.

International Space Station is growing human organ tissue in space, someday we may have organ farms in space

Yes, we’ve learned a lot about humans living in space during the past fifty-nine years. Unfortunately, one thing we’ve learned is that space changes a person physiologically. Some of those changes are reversible. Some are not. But imagine if we could replace space-damaged organs. Organ farms in space may make human spaceflight a la Star Trek and Star Wars possible. But more than that, organs grown in space may help relieve multiple complications about organ transplants here on earth.

The Downside to Organ Transplants

Today, when a person needs a new kidney or liver or lung, they must get on a waiting list. The list of people needing organs (no matter which organ they need) is much longer than the list of donors. Years longer.

But being on the list doesn’t mean you’ll get an organ. Organs must be a good match to the recipient’s blood type, height, weight, and other medical factors. Distance between donor and recipient and size of the organ are also factors. (If you’re interested in more details on how the process for matching organ donor to recipient, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing.)

After healing from the surgery, the recipient’s body often sees the transplanted organ as a foreign tissue and tries to reject it. To prevent that, most organ recipients must be on anti-rejection drugs. These drugs have many unpleasant side effects. Some people are on those drugs for years.

Lab-generated Organs

Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine makes replacement parts out of the patient’s own tissues. Most of what they do is experimental, but they have successfully implanted lab-grown urinary bladders.

The first lab-grown organ was a human bladder more than ten years ago.

To create a bladder, they take a small piece of a patient’s bladder and separate muscle and urothelial cells. They put those two types of cells in lab dishes in a fluid that stimulates their growth. In about six weeks, they have enough cells for a bladder. Then they pour the muscle cells onto a collagen scaffold. Two days later, they coat the inside of the scaffold with the urothelial cells. After some time in an incubator, you have a new bladder.

It’s not an easy or quick process. And a bladder is a very simple organ. There are many organs we simply cannot grow in a lab. A heart or a kidney or a lung are much more complex.

3D Printed Organs

I mentioned 3D printed organs in my blog post about future medical treatments. Only we may not have to wait so long.

NASA is 3D Printing Human Organs Aboard the International Space Station. Rather, they’re printing organ tissue. Watch the video.

Someday they hope to grow the more complex organs such as hearts and lungs.

Advantages of 3D Printed Organs

There are many advantages to using 3D printed organs rather than donor organs. You can create an organ exactly the right size, you don’t have to be on a years-long waiting list (once it’s a viable process), and most of all, they can use your own stem cells. Your body will recognize any tissue made with your stem cells. No more fear of rejection!

black man at laptop printing something on a 3D printer--will we 3d print organs--will organ farms in space make us immortal?

But the reason we want to grow organs in space isn’t so we can create the science fiction trope, an organ farm in space. It’s because in microgravity, the cells can grow in 3 dimensions. Someday, we may print the more complex organs. Think of it no more donor organ rejection.

And if astronauts on a long-duration space voyage were to get sick and need an organ transplant, they could get replacement printed up in no time.

What the Future Holds

What if some day there is an organ farm in space? Would they make those organs available to all who need them? Or would those organs be so expensive only the very rich could afford them? Will replacement organs extend human life longer than the “average” lifespan? If it does, will those organ recipients be immortal? How many organ replacements should one person be allowed? What the future holds is unknowable, but perhaps we should give some thought to the consequences of an organ farm in space.

NASA Spinoff Tech You Have Used

Did you know that one degree celsius difference in temperature between your right and left leg means you may have sensory nerve damage in your lower back? Did you know a hot spot on your skin, or inside your body, could mean an infection or an inflammatory disease? Detected cold spots often mean poor blood supply. How do we determine these temperatures? Infrared technologies owe much to NASA sponsored research. Yes, we’re talking about more NASA spinoff technology. This is spinoff tech you have used in your home or in a medical facility.

image of the moon NASA spinoff tech you have used could have come from the Apollo Lunar Landing Program

What is Infrared

Infrared Radiation (IR) is invisible to most humans. Also infrared light, it is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) with wavelengths longer than those of visible light.

German-born British astronomer, Sir William Herschel discovered infrared radiation on February 11, 1800 when he observed its effect on a thermometer.

The first experiments with infrared occurred during WWII. German engineers attempted to create heat-seeking missiles and proximity fuses. The war ended before they could.

Many countries experimented with thermal detectors of IR. Thermocouples and bolometers are two such devices still used today.

NASA developed IR scanners for detecting objects in space. That led to an entire array of other uses for infrared detection.

Ear or Aural Thermometers

image of infrared or ear thermometer, a NASA spinoff tech

With concerns about the pandemic and fevers, have you used one of these or had one used on you recently?

Diatek Corporation of San Diego, California adapted infrared sensor technology developed for space missions into an ear thermometer. Within two seconds it measures heat radiated from an eardrum. It save nurses time and stress on their wrists (from shaking down thermometers—ask me how I know!)

Thermography

Thermography is a test that uses an infrared camera to detect heat patterns and blood flow in body tissues.

There are thermography cameras, videos, and scanners.

With those of these devices your medical team can detect restricted blood flow because of narrowing of the blood vessels or a blood clot. The device also detects inflammatory diseases and some cancers.

Body Imaging

An image of an MRI machine, another NASA spinoff tech

In the mid-1960s, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) pioneered digital signal processing (DSP) for the Apollo Lunar Landing program. DSP is used in advanced body imaging techniques including computer-aided tomography, also known as CT and CATScan, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

 NASA Spinoffs You Have Used

Have you used an ear thermometer? Had a thermal video or thermography done? Perhaps you’ve had an MRI or CATScan. There is undoubtedly NASA Spinoff tech you have used in your home or elsewhere. Did you know these things were spinoffs?