Can Artificial Intelligence Be Creative?

Before you read this post, I want you to do something for me. Take 10 seconds and think of 5 fields that best exhibit “creativity” as you think of it.

As I’ve dug into the field of artificial intelligence, I’ve noticed one theme that sets it apart from the other “emerging technologies” I work with like the internet of things, virtual reality, and drones. More than any other technology we’re working on today, AI elicits profound discussions on societal implications and what it means to be human. And that’s probably how it should be: our intelligence is what makes us human; creating machines that rival or surpass that intelligence, even just within specialized applications, is bound to make us ask some deep questions.

The AI “deep” questions span a range of topics: Can computers ever be smarter than humans? How should we think about the specter of AI stealing peoples’ jobs? Will robots ever be given their own rights? These are vital questions for us to discuss over the next couple of decades as AI begins to supplant human dominance in more and more domains. But there’s one particular question that I think we can already answer today.

Similar to our intelligence as a whole, a lot of people feel that “creativity” is an attribute that is solely in the purview of humanity. Just as many people feel that there is some non-mechanical element of our species that gives us superior mental capacity to what a computer will ever achieve with silicon, there are defenders of the uniqueness of “human” that believe the ability to exhibit creativity will be forever beyond the reach of AI.

Let’s make one thing clear right now: I think they are woefully wrong.

In part, the difficulty in arguing in the affirmative of AI’s potential (actually, current capability) arises from the fluidity with which we use the word “creativity”. In fact, this is a well-studied problem in the field of computational creativity. Yes, there is a formal field of computational creativity, so if you’ve been harboring a suspicion that I’m a crackpot up until now, best you leave that concern unvoiced.

In fact, the difficulty of defining the term is what led to my very first ask in this post: the 5 creative fields. Hopefully you came up with a good list: painting, music, poetry. Perhaps even business. The particular fields you came up with aren’t important. Just think about the elements of these fields that caused them to rise to the top of your mind. Got it? Good. That’s your definition of creativity.

The argument

The argument against the ability of AI to demonstrate creativity generally boils down to this: an algorithm can only do what it’s programmed to do, so it can’t possibly do anything novel (i.e., be creative). Any product of the algorithm is solely a demonstration of the programmer’s creativity, not the machine’s.

The response

I would argue that the above logic implies that humans are not creative and all originality can be attributed to God. Or Allah. Or Brahma. Or Darwin. Whatever.

I could explain to you what a deep neural network is and how it mimics the function of the human brain to the extent that “the argument” applies equally to humans and AI’s. In fact, I made a pretty good start on it in a previous post. But I don’t want to risk losing the 5% of you who have made it this far, so I’ll jump straight to the counterexamples.

The art

Did you see the art piece at the top of this post? I like it. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t hang it on my wall at home, but it’s evocative: I see a birthday party, a bird, an elephant with its intestines rising into the sky. It’s art. It’s a piece titled Starting Over by Harold Cohen (who, unfortunately, passed away in April). Only… it wasn’t actually made by Mr. Cohen. It was made by Aaron. Well, AARON. AARON is an algorithm.

AARON’s work has been described as formulaic. Or maybe you just don’t like abstract art. Okay, how about a poem?

A home transformed by the lightning 
the balanced alcoves smother 
this insatiable earth of a planet, Earth. 
They attacked it with mechanical horns 
because they love you, love, in fire and wind. 
You say, what is the time waiting for in its spring? 
I tell you it is waiting for your branch that flows, 
because you are a sweet-smelling diamond architecture 
that does not know why it grows.

I guess, to be fair, poetry is hard to decipher for the layman. Okay, how about music? How about a freakin’ book?


In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months (or just don’t care about AI as much as I do), AI development hit another major milestone in March of this year when AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol to “conquer” the game of Go. Go is a fascinatingly simple (and yet complex) game popular in many countries in east Asia. Its strategies are so intricate that it is one of the four “essential” arts in ancient Chinese culture.

I could try and explain how AlphaGo’s algorithms wove a set of games so astoundingly impressive and complex that it is now officially ranked as a “divine” player and that means it exhibits creativity, but I’d rather you hear it from the professionals.

Lee Sedol on his loss:

“It made me question human creativity. When I saw AlphaGo’s moves, I wondered whether the Go moves I have known were the right ones.”

Fan Hui (European Go champion) commenting on one of AlphaGo’s moves:

“It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move. So beautiful.”

Michael Redmond (American professional Go player) commenting:

“It’s a creative move…It’s something new and unique [Sedol] has to think about.”

So anyway…

Can artificial intelligence be creative? I guess it really does depend on how you define creativity. But if you take a look at the myriad examples of AI’s creations across the arts today and decide that AI isn’t already creative, I’m really just not sure what to do with you.