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The Algorithm of Creativity

An image of robot
Photo source : Tara Winstead

As I think more to understand what learning, creativity and intelligence mean in the light of our present day, I bumped into an old stack of magazines at a second-hand book market titled “The Brains Last Stand”. It was a 1997 edition of Newsweek Magazine, which described the shocking moment when Gary Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s deep blue. At that moment, it felt like today, humanity letting out a collective sigh, recognizing the loss of an essential human territory to the onslaught of thinking machines, giving the daily announcements in AI-enabled products in the past 2weeks.

Chess has always been known as a creative game, the manipulation of pieces a process so intricate through moves on the grid board and the grandmasters godlike with a style of play that storytellers twist for dreamers to dwell. It’s most probably the fact that the machine was quite good at avoiding mistakes and analyzing billions of moves due to computation, and many wonder today if the machine’s intelligence diminished the creative aesthetics of the game.

But as we have always known, the ability to come up with new ways of seeing and doing things recognized as a crucial aspect of human culture is what we call creativity, yet it is hard to define and harder yet to measure. According to Mitali Banerjee, creativity not only defines the work of artistic pioneers or visionary scientists, but its different forms also animate the activities of businesses in industries ranging from technology to entertainment.

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How then do we consider intelligence in a world that is now governed by algorithms which has created a shift able to revolutionize the process of creativity?

Algorithms are indeed a force of nature, as they are designed to solve a specific problem or accomplish a particular task. It is a well-defined procedure that takes input, performs a series of computational steps, and produces an output or result. For example, in the marketing industry, Nikola Kemp writes in the campaign live blog, that the rise of the algorithm is all about a new breed of intuitive technology that understands consumers’ buying habits and makes relevant recommendations as we see in platforms like Amazon. The development of intelligent assistants like Siri, the rise of algorithmic nature at Netflix and the revolutionary economics of Bitcoin and recently the likes of GPT-4o & Gemini are all tied to the power of algorithms.

It is difficult to think of a medium where creative practice has not been thoroughly transformed by the power of computation and automation so that while algorithms are wonderful for extrapolating from past information, they seemingly still lag behind human creativity when it comes to radical, interesting leaps. So far, they are much better at identifying and replicating surprising content than they are at producing it themselves. Again, one of the many fatal flaws is that algorithms are stuck in the past, uncreative, lack human insight and the element of surprise. Every set of crunched numbers, every calculated outcome, needs an equal and perhaps opposite human component to bring it to life.

While there is notable algorithm paranoia, the future is not as dark as is suggested and, while software might be eating the world for lunch, I presume that its impact might not be as scathing unlike Gutenberg’s press killing the art of writing in the 15th century. We must have a positive outlook towards new technological tools and create ways of engendering more human creativity, not less.

There is a future for human aesthetics and we will continue responding most powerfully to those creative stimuli that somehow reconfigure our brains, literally allowing us to see in a new way. Machines can occasionally do that for us, like metaverse music concerts featuring the likes of ABBA and Tupac Shakur but more often than not, it is a human creator who bends computational tools to achieve a breakthrough that somehow becomes more than a recombination or incremental innovation of prior work.

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We stand at a remarkable time in our lives where our tools are learning from us, just as we learn from them, setting the stage for joining or somewhat intention, anticipation, creativity and insights mapping every move as well as the social and technical structures that fall in between all for whats next! This is terrifying and breathtaking all at once!

Computation and algorithms are a parallel project, grounded in the impossible beauty of abstract mathematics and symbolic systems. As they come together, we need to remain the creators, and not the creation of our beautiful machines as what may seem like intelligence when a machine “creates” an Impressionistic piece of art is, well, most artificial. Algorithms today can’t prompt themselves, a machine’s algorithm can’t replace the human mind. It can’t replace our ability to use our emotions, experiences, and thoughts to create new things.

According to the chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, “having a computer partner (co-pilot) also meant never having to worry about making a tactical blunder. The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity is even more paramount under these conditions”.

I strongly believe that creativity is not in competition with algorithms as what makes us stand out is our cognitive ability to foresee and project abstract outcomes thereby imagining the world anew. So I gladly encourage the inevitable dance between humans and machines as this collaboration defines our future hopefully for good.

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