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Can AI automate human creativity?

If artificial intelligence can create art, what happens to the artist?

By Zoë Grünewald

Back in May, the InParadiso Gallery in Venice opened the first solo exhibition of the world’s first humanoid robot artist, Ai-Da Robot. Ai-Da, originally created by the Oxfordians, an “international team of highly skilled and wide-ranging contributors”, paints with a robotic arm, layering paint in a similar way to how a computer may layer pixels.

Ai-Da’s exhibition explores the role of art in artificial intelligence – where it fits and whether robots can really be creative. It is “presented over five connected spaces, [and] will explore the interface between human experience and AI technology, from Alan Turing to the metaverse, and will draw on Dante’s concepts of Purgatory and Hell to explore the future of humanity in a world where AI technology continues to encroach on everyday human life”.

When we think of creativity, we tend to think of it as quintessentially human. The idea that we could automate something like creativity, or imagination, seems not only alien, but also undesirable – why would we want to leave beauty, humour and other aspects of the human experience to robots?

In 1998, Margaret Boden, an academic at the University of Sussex, explored these ideas in her paper Creativity and Artificial Intelligence. She outlined three ways in which AI techniques could spawn creativity: “By producing novel combinations of familiar ideas; by exploring the potential of conceptual spaces; and by making transformations that enable the generation of previously impossible ideas.”

She dismissed the idea that creativity was so uniquely human that it should not be automated: “Creativity is not a special ‘faculty’, nor a psychological property confined to a tiny elite. Rather, it is a feature of human intelligence in general. It is grounded in everyday capacities such as the association of ideas, reminding, perception, analogical thinking, searching a structured problem-space, and reflective self-criticism.” 

As Boden alluded to, though humans can be born with specific talents – an “eye” for colour or the written word, for example – the ability to hone these talents into skills involves a process of understanding, practising and learning. And that is something a computer can do too.

John R. Smith is an IBM fellow and lead at IBM Research who has participated in a number of projects at the “intersection of AI and creativity”. He tells Spotlight about one particular project from several years ago that made a “big impact”, which involved using AI to assist in the making of the first-ever “cognitive movie trailer” for the horror film Morgan.

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In a blog post he spoke about the challenge: horror movies are subjective, and one person’s idea of sheer terror might not make anyone else break out in a cold sweat. “There are patterns and types of emotions in horror movies that resonate differently with each viewer, and the intricacies and interrelation of these are what an AI system would have to identify and understand in order to create a compelling movie trailer,” Smith wrote. “Our team was faced with the challenge of not only teaching a system to understand ‘what is scary’, but then to create a trailer that would be considered ‘frightening and suspenseful’ by a majority of viewers.”

The project showed the value of AI in helping with the creative process, allowing the team to manufacture a trailer that would have all the ingredients for a successful, frightening preview of the film. But, as Smith puts it, “the creative step of ultimately producing something novel, unexpected and useful from the suggestions is still up to human creativity”. In other words, the movie trailer still needed the team to check the process and put it all together.

Richard Norton is an artist and co-founder of two creative businesses that work with AI: Tiny Giant and NFT Peeps. He has been working with machine learning since 2017 in commercial marketing, and explains that using AI in the production of his artistic endeavours has “thrown up whole new ways of thinking about creativity, and created things I never could through solely human techniques”.

In this way, though Norton uses AI to help inspire, he explains he mostly uses AI in the production of actual imagery. He explains that this “brings huge attention and good commercial numbers for clients, and garners creative awards”.

AI gave him the capacity to produce art he had never been able to before, but he doesn’t think that minimised his role as an artist: “Devalue? Definitely not. If anything, it has helped take one’s thinking to all kinds of weird, wild and wonderful places.”

Smith concurs: “Creativity is still entirely a human endeavour. That said, AI can augment human creativity by automating a significant amount of background work that has the role of preparing for and even creating precursors for human creativity.”

Jamillah Knowles is an ex-tech journalist and artist with a degree in computer science. She has spent much of her career looking into tech, specifically AI, and is now undertaking a master’s degree in illustration, where she is trying to change the way in which AI is portrayed in the media. She has also created artwork with AI programmes, specifically embroidery.

Knowles is a great advocate for the use of AI in art, and doesn’t worry about AI devaluing the role of the artist. Instead, she focuses on the value of art for the audience: “It’s finding out where do we find the joy and intrigue in art and I think that’s down to the individual.”

Any issues with the use of AI in creativity are tied to broader ethical questions, she says. Knowles makes reference to bias in data sets, where the data fed to computers about what we perceive to be “good” art may disproportionately represent one’s personal biases about talent, success and their socio-economic determinants, but emphasises the personal responsibility of the artist to amplify disenfranchised voices. Knowles also points to socio-economic barriers to art programmes. “Luckily, a lot of these tools (AI art programmes) are free online. But it would be preferable if there was some support and stimulus in education, so the kids who were doing art would be able to find those tools [more easily].”

Ai-Da is creating art alone through automation, but ultimately the team of Oxfordians are behind it. They have programmed it and projected their vision, be it creative, strategic or mechanic, on to the robot. Could we one day see a programme that produces art entirely independent of any human artist?

Knowles isn’t so sure. “It’s possible,” she explains, “but [Ai-Da is] not making [art] to make itself happy or emotional. It is coming to a successful outcome. It’s been tasked to do something. So every step along the way, you’ve got some sort of human interaction to make that happen.”

[See also: Inside Europe’s fight for ethical AI]

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