• Dr. Timothy Smith

If Humans Exhibit Creativity, and Humans Created Computers, Can Computers Show Creativity?


What is Creativity? Scholars, psychologists, social scientists and even computer scientists vary on the definition of creativity, but the definition generally refers to the development of novel ideas or things that did not exist before and solve a problem. Another way to describe creativity is the moment of insight like a flash or instant knowing that happens when the solution to your problem appears. The impact of creativity may range from the small in the case of an unique song written and played by an amateur musician that never leaves her practice room to the world changing impact of the creation of an new type of mathematics. Back in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton, the English physicist and mathematician, published Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which is considered one of the most significant books ever written in science. Before Principia, there were notable branches of mathematics such as geometry and algebra but no calculus. Newton as a physicist struggled with the available mathematics of his time to explain what he observed in the natural world. When he observed that when objects fell to earth they moved faster and faster, he could not explain it mathematically. Without the proper mathematics he could not predict how fast an apple would fall from a tree. Geometry didn’t help. Algebra didn’t help. So, he invented an entire new branch of mathematics that could better describe the changing natural world around him. Calculus, in other words, is the math of changes, and Newton created it to help him solve some big problems.

Just look around and you will see the evidence of human creativity everywhere from cars to houses, to airplanes, to artwork to even the computer on which you are reading this blog post. The nature of human creativity has sparked much debate and interest in many realms of research, including computer science. In fact, the discipline of computer science has its own area specifically built around creativity called Computational Creativity. Computational Creativity focuses on understanding human creativity and tries to model it in computers. The field distinguishes different types of creativity. For example, the Professor of Cognitive Science at Sussex University in the UK, Margaret Boden, divides creativity into two types. The first type she calls psychological creativity, or P-creativity, for creations that are novel to the individual like the example of the musicians’s song mentioned above. The second type of creativity Professor Boden calls “historical creativity”, or H-creativity. H-creativity must be recognized as creative at a societal level. Newton’s invention of calculus is a great example of H-creativity. We may be decades or even generations away for a computer exhibiting H-creativity, but we are already witnessing P-creativity in computing, and some of the P-creativity has been very impressive.

The game of Go has been played for over 2,500 years and was considered one of the four essential arts of the ancient Chinese scholars with the others being music, calligraphy and painting. Go is a board game for two players with a 19 x 19 grid and black and white stones. Black for one player and white for the other. Players take turns placing their stones on the grid. The goal of the game is to surround more territory than you opponent. Due to the large grid there are billions and billions of possible moves. Go is considered more complicated than chess and has been considered one game that a computer would never be able to beat a human at. Enter AlphaGo. Google DeepMind created AlphaGo, which used artificial intelligence to master the game of Go. By playing itself millions of times and learning each time how improve its game, AlphaGo worked up the ladder to become a champion Go player. In a landmark achievement for artificial intelligence on March of 2016, AlphaGo defeated the world’s greatest Go player, Lee Se-dol in 4 out of 5 games played. What make the victory so interesting is that AlphaGo, by playing itself, created its own strategy that was different from expected human moves. Fan Hui, an international Go champion remarked, when watching AlphaGo defeat Lee Se-dol, “It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move. So beautiful!” One of the English language commentators covering the man v. machine match noted, “That’s a very surprising move. I thought it was a mistake.” After the matches were over Lee Se-dol conceded, that he never felt in control of the games. AlphaGo really shocked him with its ingenuity. In other words, AlphaGo appeared to have exhibited true creativity.

Artificial intelligence continues to demonstrate creativity in other realms such as music with Jukedeck’s AI composed music. For a small fee you can get Jukedeck’s AI to compose music for your video or vlog royalty free. In the visual arts Google strikes again with DeepDream. The computer uses sophisticated neural networks to generate creative pictures based on images fed into it. According to the DeepDream website, DeepDream was originally created to help engineers to look inside the “mind” of the computer to better understand how it was seeing images were being processed, and what came out were very psychedelic images. Last summer at an event hosted by the Grey Area Arts Society, over $80,000 were raised from the sale of these AI generated images. You need to look at them for yourself to judge if you think this is creative art or not. You can view the gallery here.

Creativity stands as one of the essential elements of human consciousness and intelligence. Examples of human creativity surround us and enhances our lives from simple things like the fork and knife for dining, to history making creativity such as the printing press. As we look at the creative outputs of computers today, we may not yet be witnessing H-creativity that will affect an entire society like Isaac Newton’s calculus, but we may be seeing new sources of creativity beyond man. Some call the pictures from DeepDream kitschy or mechanical but will pay money for them and even put them on their wall. AlphaGo clearly created a new way to play Go. The stunning victory over Lee Se-dol watched by over 60 million Chinese supports the notion that computers truly can exhibit creativity, and it remains to be seen just how creative they can become.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.