Can artificial intelligence prompt a creative revolution?

It's an unlikely partnership, but AI can stimulate a 'new brand' of human creativity.
20 August 2020
  • Thanks to our ability to contextualize, think metaphorically and define new patterns, human creativity remains distinguished from machine’s
  • Creative transformation using AI is not a one-off change, but a long-form process
  • Through freeing up our time, giving us prompts and future-proofing our efforts, AI may help us realize new, exciting, creative directions

Unless you’re a machine and you’re reading this, you are in fact a human being. You perceive, make sense of, adapt, and respond to what life presents you. In doing so, you come up with creative acts and solutions, thriving for stability or exciting new outcomes as you go. You do so even if you don’t feel yourself to be all that creative.

To offset this side of us, we all need a certain degree of methodical focus too. Each situation requires both angles, and each serves as the other’s ballast. Otherwise, it’d just be unbridled, chaotic ingenuity everywhere all the time. The methodical, problem-solving side of the human brain is traditionally more akin to Artificial Intelligence (AI), but such intelligence and machine learning is moving ever-more into the realm of the creative. This begs the question, can AI rival or even outdo human creativity, or is it destined to just facilitate and augment it?

The projections are frightening: robotic automation, AI, and machine intelligence may well take 800m jobs globally by 2030. “The robots are taking over,” is often how the typical AI discussion goes.

But the bulk of those jobs are menial and repetitive, to the point that humans would be better off allocating their attention elsewhere. In fact, history suggests that while new technologies may end the need for human involvement in some tasks, it will usually also enable the creation of entirely new jobs – even entirely new industries. When it comes to creativity, too, we’re fairly safe in our idiosyncrasies, and there are some stark differences in the way we operate as against the ways AI operates.

Human creativity vs. machine creativity

Sociologist Anton Oleinik looks at the kinship between machine creativity and human creativity through a lens of relative skepticism. He consults how AI’s neural networks rely on statistical regression – they’re good at identifying patterns, but a little less nifty when it comes to anticipating when a pattern might change, “let alone connect one pattern to an unrelated pattern, which is a crucial ingredient in our creativity.”

Human innovations are – more often than not – contextualized by social connections and relationships. We are propelled and validated in our creativity by our links to others, and their ideas. Neural networks and AI programs, however, don’t understand or incorporate outside context. They’re unable to adjust to social norms and interactions beyond the realm of their specific purpose and data set.

In other words, they lack social intelligence, and social intelligence is the bedrock of human creativity.

Oleinik says: “creativity is hardly possible without one’s capacity to think metaphorically, to coordinate proactively and to make predictions that go beyond simple extrapolation.” At best, then, AI can mimic creativity, replicating, re-appropriating, and ultimately augmenting existing human outputs. The bulk of AI’s creations arrive following extensive consultation of data sets/creative content that it’s programmed to do so. It simulates aspects of human intelligence, it cannot create organic creative content.

That said, we’re seeing Natural Language Generation (NLG) push forward at some rate. MIT developed, Twitter-affiliated Shelley is AI creative writing program that draws on social posts and collaborates with followers to create horror stories. They’re really not so awful. Similarly, Google’s latest art project PoemPortraits takes a word of your suggestion and generates a unique poem.

But, in the majority of cases, AI still only really provides recommendations to a human designer, who makes the ultimate call on creative outcomes. Human creativity descends from a certain inclination towards messiness. AI thrives on organization, patterns, and precision. But what a combination…

AI — paving the way for enhanced human creativity

For the time being, we’re ruling out the world’s artists, literary masters, multi-instrumentalists, and creative business minds stepping aside and letting robots hold the creative mantle. Instead, we can focus on how AI is more apt to challenge us and guide our creativity, leading the way towards new innovations in daily life and at work. The technology isn’t challenging our prideful hold on creativity, it’s prompting us to reimagine the creative process, to generate fresh opportunities, value, and growth in all that we do.

There are three primary ways technology – and especially AI – can encourage a better brand of human creativity:

1. Freeing up time for humans to focus on innovation. We know machines mean efficiency when programmed correctly. Humans can, therefore, expedite some of the more process-intensive elements of a task and focus instead on intellectual heavy-lifting. In short, robotics can help us to become more human, and creativity ties into this no end.

The truly successful businesses will be the ones that realize their transformation isn’t a one-off change to adopt the latest technological tools for creative excellence, but rather an ongoing process – with the needs of people placed firmly as the focal point of innovative efforts, not the capabilities of the currently available tools (including AI).

2. Creatively combining technologies to create new ways of working. The result? A whole new way of looking at the world. By combining human and AI creative potential, we can approach challenges, develop ideas, and drive growth, not just more meticulously, but more efficiently.

This covers design, productivity, marketing, the rest of it. For the time being, AI is a channel through which humans can further thrive. It churns through data, considers options and alternatives, and gives rise to great creative opportunities for us to progress. Increasingly, as we (businesses) come to “accept AI into our work as a [creative] contributor”, the way that people create will also further evolve.

Rather than starting with a blank canvas, we can use AI to direct our creative judgment and decision-making processes. We can start down innovative paths that are pre-determined to be more successful, and consider solutions that we mere mortals may not have done otherwise. Utilizing AI in this way – as smart assistants – is a means of furthering our creative thinking, optimizing the creative process, not replacing or reinventing it.

3. Looking to the future. When you think about the creative challenges you or your business face now, and look to what’s next, chances are it’ll be a combination of AI and your own sharp mind that will unleash your full potential, as well as organizational and societal potential more broadly.

Consider the processes you could expedite, how you can draw on AI’s capabilities to prompt new ways of tackling things. Sure, machines are increasingly able to perform what we consider complex, abstract, creative tasks, but that is to our advantage. The implications on the future of work, education, and human societies are profound. They are also promising, as we continue to navigate the AI era with our eyes set on pushing creative boundaries.