Can AI be creative?

A few months back, I participated in a panel discussion on Technology and Design for Kansas City’s Design Week. The conversation turned to the topic of whether technology will ever become capable of truly creative work and whether it would ever replace us (creative professionals). All of the other panelists were adamant that tech could never do truly creative work. I was the lone voice arguing that tech would eventually but inevitably do all the jobs we’re doing now. Or at least the jobs that are still relevant whenever the robot uprising happens.

Since then, I’ve read and seen a lot of posts, articles, thoughts, videos and demos about the emergence of Creative AI. And my sense of the inevitability of truly creative AI has only increased.

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by today’s fledgling and sometimes underwhelming efforts. You could be forgiven, for example, for being benevolently bemused by the work of Norwegian developer Lars Eidnes who trained the Clickotron to write clickbait headlines and stories. The results are humorous and sadly on point, even if they lack coherence that a more competent human writer would presumably bring to the task.

But the Clickotron is pretty close to “good enough,” and it’s precisely at the low end of creative endeavors where AI is likely to establish a foothold. But it won’t stop there. Clickotron’s bigger, smarter, more respectable cousins are already writing financial reports from data and helping public companies fulfill reporting requirements. The Associated Press uses an AI system called Automated Insights to write its more mundane stories, such as quarterly earnings write-ups.

At the higher end of the writing artform, AI systems are learning to write screenplays and even poetry.

this was the only way.
 it was the only way.
 it was her turn to blink.
 it was hard to tell.
 it was time to move on.
 he had to do it again.
 they all looked at each other.
 they all turned to look back.
 they both turned to face him.
 they both turned and walked away.

OK, you might reasonably conclude that they’re not very good at it yet, but what do you expect when their training diet is romance novels?!

Closer to home, in the realm of advertising, two of the winners of this year’s Cannes Innovation Lions were Creative AI endeavors. For ING’s Next Rembrandt campaign, an AI system studied dozens of Rembrandt paintings in infinitesimal detail in order to create a wholly new painting in the style of the Dutch Master. Jukedeck, an online AI music composition system, was also a Cannes Innovation Lions recipient. And the coveted Gold Innovation Lion went to another AI system, Google’s DeepMind system, which learned to play the ancient Chinese game Go and beat a professional human player.

Last year, MC Saatchi tested an AI system which generated and evolved bus stop ads for a fictional coffee brand and evolved the ads over time in response to people’s facial responses. McCann Erickson in Japan has created the first ever AI Creative Director, AI-CD β. It’s first commercial just aired for Clorets Mint Tab. The creative direction it offered was to “convey ‘wild’ with a song in an urban tone, leaving an image of refreshment with a feeling of liberation.” Admittedly, that direction leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but it’s no less coherent than a lot of creative platforms I’ve seen.

Many will argue that all of these systems are incapable of producing original creative work, because they are trained on diet of material and then produce output through a system of rules. This argument lacks an understanding of fact that AI systems use techniques to learn and evolve their rules, enabling to them to invent outputs their creators never dreamed. More importantly, this argument and its conclusion that AI will never be truly creative misses a fundamental point: So What?

It doesn’t matter one bit if Creative AI can’t produce something truly original or doesn’t have a soul or can’t make decisions about relevance. If it produces creative work that can’t be discerned from work produced by a human being, or is even better than human-produced work, what does it matter whether the artist has a soul or a CPU? Consider this a Turing test for creativity. If the work evokes emotion and is perceived to have meaning by its beholder, then whatever or whoever produced can be deemed “creative.”

By that standard, all of us creative professionals would do well to look over our shoulders every now and then and see what our artificial competition is cooking up. AI is already establishing a foothold in marketing in the realm of optimization and customization. It’s only a matter of time before it takes over production tasks, and after that, takes a seat at the strategy and creative tables.

I’m not placing bets just yet on when the robot creative revolution will happen, but I’m fairly confident it will happen before the end of my career; and possibly, of course, bring about the end of my career.

#beafraid #robotsarecoming

A robot wrote this post. Just kidding. It would’ve done a better job.

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