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?

It Isn’t Just Science Fiction Anymore

Remember when you first read a science fiction story with nanobots teaming inside a person? Were you afraid? I thought it was cool. But that was fiction. And nanobots aren’t real–yet. However, tiny robots inside your body isn’t just science fiction anymore. A team of researchers at the University of Vermont have created a new life-form.

Computer-Designed

Digital computer designs look like blue and red lego blocks making various shapes
digital designs on top, cells below

Lead author and doctoral student, Sam Kriegman, used an evolutionary algorithm. He fed it into the Deep Green supercomputer cluster at UVM. The computer ran thousands of simulated designs over the next few months. The basic biophysics of what single frog skin and cardiac cells can do drove its decisions. It discarded designs that failed and refined the more successful ones. After a hundred independent runs of the algorithm, the research team chose the most promising designs.

Repurposed

A book is made of wood. But it is not a tree. The dead cells have been repurposed to serve another need.

UVM News

From there the research went to biologists at Tufts University. Michael Levin, who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, and his team brought the computer designs to life. With vital help from microsurgeon Douglas Blackiston, they harvested stem cells from the embryos of African frogs. Then they separated them into single cells. After an incubation period, they put the cells under a microscope. Using tiny instruments, they cut and rejoined the cells to resemble the computer design.

Tests showed that a group of the new life-forms would push pellets into a central location. The scientist redesigned it to reduce drag and to give it a means to carry tiny payloads. 

Living Programmable Organism

image of xenobot--a tiny organism with green of the frog skin and red cardiac muscle. Tiny robots inside your body isn't just science fiction anymore.

They called the organism a xenobot after Xenopus laevis, the species of frog used to create it. Slightly smaller than the head of a pin, it has four appendages. It has large hind limbs and smaller forelimbs layered with red heart muscle. The heart muscle contracts which allows it to move It can move independently or in coordination with other xenobots. It can carry tiny things. And if cut, it can heal itself.

It lives off its own embryonic energy stores. A xenobot’s life span ranges from seven days to several weeks.

There are no external controls. 

“These xenobots are fully biodegradable,” say Bongard, “when they’re done with their job after seven days, they’re just dead skin cells.”

UMV News

A Brief Summary

The Future of Xenobots

Scientists believe that xenobots can carry medicine to specific cells within a patient’s body. Someday xenobots might remove microplastics from the ocean. They might be useful in toxic spills or radioactive contamination. They might even clean plaque from human arteries. (The plaque that causes strokes and heart attacks.)

You can learn more about xenobots and what the scientist hope they’ll learn on their website.

What Could Go Wrong?

The UMV news stated, “Many people worry about the implications of rapid technological change and complex biological manipulations. ‘That fear is not unreasonable,’ Levin says. ‘When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don’t understand, we’re going to get unintended consequences.’”

Obviously they will do lots more testing and research. But as a science fiction author, I can’t help but imagine what sorts of unintended consequences there might be. Any past science fiction movies bring some ideas to mind?

They say that xenobots can’t reproduce or evolve. Where have we heard that one before? Hmm?

It’s not just science fiction anymore, is it?  Xenobots aren’t nanobots, but they are tiny. And they aren’t going to be injected in humans soon. But they have the potential to affect the future of the health and longevity of humans. Do you view this new life-form with hope or fear?

Robotics Will Challenge Our Humanity

Ever since The JetsonsRosie the Robot, robots and robotics have fascinated me. Over time, robotics crept into our everyday world. Stunning advances loom making robots and artificial intelligence and androids less and less a science fiction trope. Robots and robotics and artificial intelligence will challenge our humanity. 

image of a red and white robot slumped in the corner.
By Jiuguang Wang – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The First Robotics

Rudimentary robots have been amongst us for a very long time.

The Greek mathematician, Archytas, invented the first known robotic device in 350 BC. A steam powered flying pigeon may not be your idea of a robot, but it was the first autonomous machine. It only vaguely looked like a pigeon. Look.  

Egyptians used the constant, controlled flow of water to power their clocks (clepsydra) that struck the hour. Learn more about Egyptian water clocks.

The First Automata

In the 17th century, a French artist and inventor built three automata. An automata is a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a living creature. He created a flute player that played twelve songs. A second musical automata played flute, drum, or tambourine. And he created a mechanical duck that acted like a duck. Read more about Jacques de Vaucanson and his inventions.

In 1810, Friedrich Kauffman from Dresden, German created a mechanical soldier that could blow a trumpet

The Birth of Modern Robotics

In1932, Japan produced a wind-up robot toy, “Lilliput.” 

Image of the toy: Giant Lilliput Robot box  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
Giant Lilliput Robot – By D J Shin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

But programmable computers developed in the 1940s allowed real robots to take shape.

George Devol invented and patented a re-programmable manipulator called Unimate in the 1950s. He couldn’t sell it. 

The Father of Robotics

Joseph Engelberger bought the patent to Unimate in the 1960s. He modified it into an industrial robotic arm and called it Unimation. Seven years later, General Motors installed the programmable robotic arm on an assembly line in New Jersey. Successful, Engelberger became identified as “the Father of Robotics.”

Modern Robotics

Today robots assist in our work, our play, on the ground, in the air, and on other planets. Below are a few of the robotic devices you might see in your daily life.

Robots in Movies

Image of C3PO from Star wars.  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
C3PO from Star Wars https://www.starwars.com/databank/c-3po

Robots for Play

Robot Games (Battlebots)

Image of three battlebot participants and their bots.
By Jes80 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Robotic Floor Cleaners

Robotic Lawn Mowers

Image of robotic lawn mower on a green lawn.
from Amazon.com

Industrial robots

Image of an industrial robotic arm on display at a trade show.  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
Humanrobo CC BY-SA 3.0

Bomb Disposal Robots

Image of an israeli robotic bomb disposal unit
Yoram Shoval CC BY-SA 4.0

Robots in Space

Image of Robonaut floating in the International Space Station.  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
Robonaut—Image credit: NASA
Selfie of the Curiosity rover on Mars.
Curiosity on Mars Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Robots Making Life Better

Robotics is also making a huge difference in the lives of amputees. Here’s an example:

Even more bionic is this man’s prosthetic. Be aware that he discusses his horrific work accident and his depression after and during his recovery. He also shares some humor and an upbeat message.

What’s Next?

They make more and more advances in robotics every day. Watch this: 

True, the above robot is tiny but what an achievement!

What’s next for robotics? I don’t know, but I expect that there will be refinements in flexibility and usability. Some refinements will make them more appealing to humans. And they will be cheaper to make and use. Perhaps we’ll have a new, improved Rosie the Robot in our homes someday. But if we do, will she follow Isaac Asimov’s three rules?  

Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Robots Challenge Our Humanity

In the video below, Rob Miles (a British AI researcher and YouTuber) discusses why the Laws of Robotics won’t work. The simple question of what is “human” becomes a complex philosophical and ethical discussion.

Miles asks is an unborn fetus a human? Is a person in a vegetative state a human? How do dolphins and chimpanzees fit into the definition, or do they? 

We have created artificial limbs. What if we provide people with crippling diseases (think Stephen Hawking) a way to function in a bionic body? Would they still be human?

In Conclusion

The problem of robots is simple as long as the robots remain simple. But as they become more and more complex, so does the question of what is human. Instead of what’s next for robotics, we need to clarify some definitions. What is human? Intelligence? Humanity? How interesting that robotics will challenge our humanity.

Flash Fiction: All Systems Nominal

Flash fiction comes in all lengths. The very best flash fiction has character, conflict, and plot. For me, flash fiction is all about mood. I hope you enjoy my flash fiction, “All Systems Nominal.”


All Systems Nominal

by

Lynette M. Burrows

The soft whirring sound of M.A.R.C., the best medical assistive robotic caregiver money could buy, moved closer to the bed  The bed’s occupant, a human male, age 100, didn’t respond. 

All Systems Nominal. Flash fiction by Lynette M. Burrows Image shows an Android-style robot with a puppet-style face.

M.A.R.C. extended its sensor arm precisely two inches above the human’s still form and swept the man from head to toe. Readouts of respiration, pulse, core temperature, blood pressure, and other biological measures flickered across M.A.R.C’s chest. All systems nominal. Sleep mode. A mechanical arm reached out and tucked the blanket under the old man’s chin. 

M.A.R.C slid back away from the bed and into its charging station. The parameters of its programming satisfied, it wouldn’t stir again for another sixty minutes. If the patient’s implanted A.I. detected an anomaly, it would alert M.A.R.C. M.A.R.C.’s programming included responses for all medical emergencies and would summon human help if necessary. But for all systems nominal, it would wait until the next programmed time to check on his patient. 

His Early Life

When the man had been a fetus suspended in the nutrient soup of the artificial womb, the analysis of his DNA indicated that he had a forty percent risk of diabetic and vascular dementia and an eighty percent chance of developing cancer. The chances that he would develop one of the few incurable cancers that remained were less than one percent. Confident their offspring would lead a long and healthy life, his 100-year-old parents did not push the abort button. 

His parents cherished the child he became. And he cherished them. 

He grew into a productive citizen and amassed a great fortune. When his parents reached their second century mark, they held an extravagant end-of-life ceremony and pushed each other’s euthanasia buttons.

During his grief, he rebooted their A.I. backups frequently. They comforted him.

As time passed, he rebooted the backups less and less frequently. His work became his solace. He spent time in meetings with the world’s greatest scientists and engineers and robotics manufacturers.

His Work

He tweaked and improved many time-saving devices and created a master control center for all of them. The world’s oldest citizens called this, his primary invention, the Jetson Control Center. His own home had one. It was the one he tinkered with to test new ideas.

Even with the amazing buttons of the master control center, he found that some things required a more hands-on-approach. But androids that looked too human, whether from his or someone else’s company, frightened real humans too much. Even androids and robots painted clownish colors did not ease human fears. He created androids and robots that looked machines and still the humans were frightened. But when his androids and robots looked like toys or dolls or puppets the humans were unafraid. In fact, the real humans loved them.

The First Alert

In his sixties, his implanted A.I. alerted. He went to the doctor for confirmation. Chance had not favored him. Diabetic. He poured all his energy into refining the artificial pancreas. His body rejected his. They tried every known metal and even tried an organic transplant. His body rejected each of them. Not even rejection suppression medication helped. 

He refined and improved the first robotic caregivers and created the M.A.R.Cs. And as the diabetic vascular dementia took over his brain and his body, he relied more and more on his A.I. 

His A.I. restored his sense of balance and kept his paranoia from flaring. It allowed him to continue to function as the COO of his corporation, but it did not support creative thinking. Still, he felt and was productive. It was unusual for him to stay in bed past 6 a.m. But his A.I. Did not send M.A.R.C. an alert. So M.A.R.C. Stayed in his charging station, leaving only to check on his patient every hour. 

M.A.R.C. went to the bed. His sensor arm swept across the old man. All systems nominal. Sleep mode.

The Last Alert

The medical bed’s A.I. recognized that the old man lay without moving for too long and rolled him on to his right side. His deep regular breaths didn’t change. His open, unblinking eyes remained unblinking. The AI that supplied his dementia addled brain with sufficient connections to overcome his condition ran a continuous alert to the old man. The hologram message floated above his unperceiving eyes. Backup Failed.


“All Systems Nominal” is about dementia and human hubris and Murphy’s Law. Dementia is a horrible disease process that comes in multiple forms. All of its forms cause deep heartache for victims and families and caregivers. If you or a family member or a friend are dealing with dementia, please reach out to the Alzheimer’s Association (it’s for all types of dementia, not just Alzheimers). They have information and resources and support. And they could use your support if you’re inclined to offer a donation.

If you enjoyed “All Systems Nominal,” you might also enjoy For Better or Worse or The Yellow Rose of Valentine’s Day.

Do You Dream of the Jetson Life?

What futuristic program(s) have you watched and wondered what life will be like that someday? As a science fiction writer, I can’t help but do that. I dream of the Jetson life. I’ve longed for the Jetson’s flying car and robots and a technology-filled home since I first watched the cartoon. Sadly, we’ve not come that far but there are amazing things on the horizon. Take a look with me.

The Flying Car

Photo of a "flying van" near a motel sign not exactly the Jetson life
Not exactly the Jetsons
Joy Engelman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

There are four prototypes discussed in this video. One is called Pal-V One. It’s a car-gyroplane hybrid. If you’ve read My Soul to Keep you know why this one appeals to me.

One of these flying cars runs on unleaded gasoline but you must be a pilot to fly it.

Another one claims that if you can drive a car, you can fly it. And one looks like a miniature space shuttle. It needs only a few hundred feet of flat surface to land. There’s a flying taxi, too. I hope it comes without taxi driver, Korben from The Fifth Element.

Home Cleaning Robots

Not exactly Rosie the robot, but we already have the Roomba vacuum and its kin.

This video discusses eight new robots.

Fedor is a humanoid robot but not intended to be a house cleaner. There are robotic exoskeletons to help children with disabilities learn to walk.

Frurion Prothesis Mech racer—an exoskeleton (A racing vehicle)

One robot captures the Lion Fish, a predator attacking the coral reefs in the Atlantic.

Patterned after the octopus, one robot can pick up hold and put down objects of any shape using suction cups on a tentacle.

The Stan Robotic Parking Valet is now in service in Paris France.

The Robots in this video are the most advanced robots in the world.

The first one discussed is a Japanese robot that actually worked as a news anchor on television. There are robots that can walk and run and avoid objects and ones that can converse with humans.

Home of the Future

This vision of the home of the future comes pretty darn close to the Jetson’s home. But push buttons are passé. Interactive mirrors and appliances are the thing.

Back to Reality

The science fiction often dreams big. We’ve got a way to go to reach the technology of the Jetson’s. But there are dreamers out there with the know-how and the funds to take the next step or two. Who knows? We may be living the Jetson life sooner than you think.