Photo by AZAdam
Computers are very smart, but they have no imagination, right?
They can only slavishly follow instructions and rules – which means they can’t think for themselves and generate original thoughts.
This is why a computer can beat a Grand Master at chess, but it will never compose music to rival Mozart.
It’s why Asimov was a creator, but Asimo is a mere curiosity.
Or is it?
Consider the findings of an experiment reported in the New York Times, in which humans were pitted against computers to see who could come up with the best ideas for advertisements.
The humans were non-advertising professionals, given a brief and asked to come up with creative ideas for adverts. The computers were programmed with an algorithm for devising advertising ideas and given the same briefs.
Here’s a sample of the results:
- COMPUTER IDEA: An Apple computer offers flowers (for advertising Apple Computers’ friendliness).
- HUMAN IDEA: An Apple computer placed next to a PC with the claim: “This is the friendliest computer.”
- COMPUTER IDEA: Two Jeeps communicating in sign language (for advertising a silent car engine).
- HUMAN IDEA: A car driving alone in the country.
- COMPUTER IDEA: A domed mosque with tennis ball texture (for World Cup Tennis tournament in Jerusalem).
- HUMAN IDEA: A picture of ancient walls of Jerusalem with a tennis poster on them.
(‘Route to Creativity: Following Bliss or Dots?’ by Natalie Angier)
I think most of us would call that 3 – 0 to the computers.
The research panel agreed – they judged the computer ads to be consistently more original and creative than those devised by the human group.
What is going on here?
Does this mean the beginning of the end for human creative superiority? Not necessarily.
The researchers were Dr. Jacob Goldenberg, Dr. David Mazursky and Dr. Sorin Solomon of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. They weren’t actually trying to find out whether computers or humans are more creative – but to mimic the thought patterns of effective human creators. Note that the human group were untrained, with no previous experience of creating adverts. The computers, on the other hand, were programmed using formulas derived from successful adverts.
So the computers had an unfair advantage. It’s as if two groups of people were pitted against each other in a game of chess: the first group composed of people who had only ever seen chess matches played on television; the second group given a thorough grounding in the rules of chess.
No prizes for guessing who would win that one.
In fact, when the reseachers repeated the experiment and taught the formulas to the human group, they were able to beat the computers.
So what was in the magic formulas?
Creativity by Numbers?
The researchers were trying to disprove the popular idea that “the most original ideas are born of utter freedom, a shifting of paradigms, a circling of the square, a streaming of consciousness, a squelching of the internal editor”. To do this, they programmed their computers using a series of ‘thought templates’ to limit options and generate ideas according to specific rules.
One of the commonest templates they found is the so-called replacement template.
For example, they considered a Nike ad, in which a group of firemen are standing around in a rescue pose, looking up as though someone was about to jump from a burning building into their net.
In lieu of a net is a giant Nike sneaker, with copy boasting of how the new Nike walking shoes are “very safe places to land.”
In this advertisement, the sneaker replaces an object whose most salient characteristic is “cushioning.” Indeed, the life net cushions a person from death itself.
(‘Route to Creativity: Following Bliss or Dots?’ by Natalie Angier)
Rules, constraints and formulas. It’s hardly the stuff of Romantic imagination, or even the popular idea of thinking outside the box. But as we’ve seen before on Lateral Action, using constraints and thinking inside the box can be surprisingly liberating.
If you’re tempted to dismiss advertising as a fairly menial form of creativity, far removed from the lofty realms of the fine arts, you may be interested to hear of the work of composer and music professor David Cope. His EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) software can create original music in the style of over a hundred different composers, which has even been mistaken for and original Bach. Have a listen to an interview with WNYC (at the foot of this page, or download here) – featuring some breathtaking excerpts of the computer-music – and judge for yourself. You can find more of Cope’s EMI’s compositions here. Personally I find some of them disturbingly good.
I’m no musical expert, but as a poet and poetry editor I pride myself on my literary judgment. So I was intrigued to come across The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, a collection of poetry and prose written by a computer program called Racter. Some of it’s not bad:
Slowly I dream of flying. I observe turnpikes and streets
studded with bushes. Coldly my soaring widens my awareness.
To guide myself I determinedly start to kill my pleasure during
the time that hours and milliseconds pass away. Aid me in this
and soaring is formidable, do not and winging is unhinged.
I like to think I wouldn’t be fooled by this kind of thing if it landed in my editor’s in-tray. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of worse poetry produced by humans.
Critical Thinking – the Critical Difference?
These examples are impressive – but are the computers really being creative?
Maybe the answer lies in the question. As far as I know, no computer would stop to think whether it was really being creative. The question wouldn’t enter its central processing unit. It’s very human to ask such a question – to desire authenticity and then evaluate the work to see whether it meets the criterion.
“To suspend criticism and think any idea is possible or good may ultimately be destructive to creativity,” said Dr. Goldenberg. As we saw last week, critical thinking is central to the creative process. And according to Goldenberg’s fellow researcher Dr Mazursky, “Humans can criticize themselves, and computers can’t”.
The advertising algorithms show it’s possible to program a computer to generate whacky ideas – but it took a human panel to judge their effectiveness.
A machine can write poetry or music – but only humans can decide whether the finished work is any good.
It sounds counterintuitive, but perhaps the human creative advantage comes not from our ability to generate unusual ideas, but to use our critical faculty to evaluate them.
I’m not saying computers will never achieve critical discernment on a level with human beings – but training them to do it will be a lot harder than teaching them a few lateral thinking techniques.
What Do You Think?
Do you think computers will ever truly think creatively?
Do you agree that critical thinking is what gives us a creative edge over our digital cousins?
How would you feel if you were moved by a story or a piece of music – only to discover it had been written by a robot?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.