What Is Creativity?

There has been much talk lately about AI being used in innovation.  Reuters recently published an article about development of a robot at Engineered Arts in Cornwall, Britain that will use artificial intelligence to sketch and paint.  Technology Review recently noted in a piece that AI was being used in the development of new drug therapies.  As AI continues to evolve, we wonder, can computers really be that creative?

This is not a new question. Developers have been debating it for as long as there have been computers and it is unlikely we will be settling the issue in this blog post.  Dictionary.com defines creativity as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination”.  Given that AI has come a long way in past years and there are many examples of computers creating “new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.”.  So, in the purest sense of the word and even at the current level of AI sophistication, computers can be developed to provide creative answers. 

Forcing creativity into a process for design and development is almost a contradiction

In comparison, Design Thinking is based on a process in which everyone can be taught to think like designers to solve problems with creativity.  Many have railed against the very premise of design thinking simply because the fact a process is involved seems to contradict creative thought in the first place. Creative thinking is an inherently messy adventure and to try and fit it into any type of nice, neat process seems counterproductive. But that is what robots and computers are: “processors”.  They take an input and then provide an output, based on the limitations of the programming they have been built with.  The premise of AI, however, is that through programming, a computer can be built to “think” and “learn”.  And, great progress has been made in this area—so much so that great thinkers like Hawking have warned us about a Matrix-type future.

However, we at Catalyst feel there is a human component to creativity that is not addressed in the above definition.  For anyone who has been involved in an ideation session or brainstorming exercise at our facility, you know what we are talking about. 

Ideation and brainstorming activities are about generating new thoughts and concepts

During creative problem solving activities, as concepts are being generated, many times the ideas are just seem…well, crazy.  They may not make complete sense or we may not even know how to make them reality at that point, but there is something there:  A different way of looking at things that had never existed before that spark of inspiration.  When these “brainstorms” occur, the conversation can take off in many different unexpected tangents.  At Catalyst, our number one rule is that “There are no bad ideas”.  Everything is on the table.  Often times someone will propose say something like “I don’t know how this would work, but what if…?

“What if.”

We love those two little words.  It means the group is truly in blue sky mode and that there is a comfort level in the room that allows people to confidently propose seemingly impossible ideas.  Often times, when these unconventional thoughts pop up, the group dynamic takes over and others begin to build on the new direction.  This is where true creative problem solving occurs and it usually concludes with a solution not even close to where everyone thought they might end up—but it is usually so much better.

It is difficult for us to even fathom how a room full of AI capable computers could achieve the same results because there is something palpable during these meetings that hard drives and circuitry cannot generate or would produce only syntax errors.  There is emotion, excitement, willingness and desire to create, accomplishment, a sense of wonder.  These are all traits that exist at emotional and psychological levels that can never be achieved with ones and zeros and billions of lines of code—it is what makes us human.  

So, our question becomes not so much “Can computers be creative?” but “Can computers generate completely random ideas that are totally illogical?” That is where truly transformational ideas really exist.  No doubt such randomness can be programmed, but it is that unpredictable human element that responds in completely unexpected ways to a given situation that simply cannot.  The fact that we are self aware and self confident in our ability to propose insane or random ideas and unexpected solutions, completely out of the blue sky that we feel still gives us the edge over our future machine overlords.

Creativity is not so much about what is created, but the process used to create it

No doubt computers can be developed to generate creative solutions, but what are we saying about ourselves if we accept them as the “best” answers to our problems?  Are we saying that because it was the result of AI, then it must be better than what a group of dedicated human problem solvers could come up with?  The fact that creative humans are thinking intelligently about how to build computers that can creatively think intelligently, makes our heads explode. 

Catalyst’s core competency is product design and complex development using applied materials, so we are not AI experts and would welcome feedback from anyone who might be.  But our conclusion is this:  Creativity cannot be easily defined by the new ideas that are generated—be that art, invention, or otherwise.  Creativity is defined more by the process of creating and until our brains can be truly interfaced with a computer, our humanity and desire to create can never be replaced by artificial intelligence. Our ability and capacity to think in non-linear, outside-the-box ways is the result of our personalities, our life experiences, our emotional depth, our empathy, our desire and ability to understand why problems must be solved—not just because we were given a computer command to do so.