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Look who's talking (and writing and painting and playing and dreaming): Can robots become designers?

Artificial intelligence is intelligent, it’s all in the name. But can it be creative? And should artists, designers and other creative types be glancing over their shoulders with a nervous eye? Anna Bradley-Smith talks to those on the frontline.  

Evi will keep you company, Berenson will objectively critique fine art, IBM Watson will help produce a song that reaches the Billboard charts

Molly will design you a website, while AARON creates pieces of art. And what does this gang have in common? None of them are human.

Already in 2017 artificial intelligence has achieved new feats, been embraced by more companies and got the attention of politicians globally. Google’s DeepMind has trained AI systems to work together, AI hedge funds are outperforming humans, a computer has won a series of Go against a human master (a big deal in the robot world), and both Google and Microsoft have announced AI has learnt to write code. 

The industry has been pegged at US$10 billion globally, and major companies including Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Baidu are in an AI talent arms-race.

It is often assumed those in the creative sector are safe from the looming wave of automation. But recent events suggest that might not be the case. 

The circle of life (and death)

Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine and a freewheeling thinker, philanthropist, photographer, conservationist and author, has long welcomed our new robot overlords and understood their potential to revolutionise our world, as he showed back in 2011 with a blog post titled ‘The Seven Stages of Robot Replacement’. 

  1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do.
  2. Okay, it can do a lot, but it can't do everything I do.
  3. Okay, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
  4. Okay, it operates without failure, but I need to train it for new tasks.
  5. Whew, that was a job that no human was meant to do, but what about me?
  6. My new job is more fun and pays more now that robots/computers are doing my old job.
  7. I am so glad a robot cannot possibly do what I do.

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The power of data

Charles Hearn, a digital marketing art director, graphic designer, illustrator and fine artist, says the most creative things for him are the connections that only seem obvious after the fact. 

Although AI is now mimicking the human thought processes like never before by using neural nets – computer systems modelled on the human brain and nervous system – he says connecting disparate things that don’t seem to make sense would be hard for AI to pull off.

What he doesn’t doubt is that AI would be superior at creating banner ads to get higher click rates. 

In 2015 M&C Saatchi ran digital posters that analysed their viewers’ reactions to determine what interested them most. Within 72 hours the ads were creating posters in line with industry best practices.

 “You can’t have an argument with an algorithm,” Hearn says. “You’re going to trust that what it spits out is data driven, based on best practices and based on real-time data that you might not be able to comprehend yourself.”

Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Kevin Smith acknowledges AI is also now composing music, generating stories and producing art, but he questions whether that is true creativity. 

“Even though they may appear creative and might actually be creative depending on your definition, these programmes all still operate within a particular set of rules defined by their programming.”

Smith says AI is not intuitive, and that might be the part of the brain that separates humans from machines. 

A robot at your service

Creativity might in fact be a redundant term when it comes to AI, creative director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney Tea Uglow says. As humans hold the right to define the term, they are able to talk their way around AI being creative.

She says it can be argued that creativity is an ability to recognise linguistic, aesthetic or musical patterns and then recombine. What’s missing, she says, is Keats’ ‘negative capability’ – the ability to synthesise multiple components and patterns into transcendent novel forms.

Uglow says many big problems have creative solutions derived from a set of existing and finite conditions, such as driverless cars or chess. But art and humour don’t have those conditions. Especially with humour, AI would have to be able to read an audience, she says.

A lot of work being done in the creative space is on neural networks, teaching machines to do derivative work. Some examples are The Next Rembrandt, which saw a computer almost perfectly replicate the work of the old master, and an experimental Beatles song written by AI, which Uglow says “kinda sounds okay”.

“I think the ability for AI to augment a creative’s capacity to create, rather than one that replaces that process, is the most exciting stuff I've seen,” she says. “And all of that is reflected in the kind of projects we are seeing on Google's AI Experiments platform.”

Slow wave of change

In the advent of neural-like computer chips, we are starting to see examples of machines that can mimic parts of human brain function, says Greg Cross of Soul Machines, a New Zealand company leading the way globally in AI human interfaces.

Much of AI’s recent success, including recent strides in Google Translate, is down to biological metaphor – using models of neuronal strata that make up the cortex. 

“Many jobs are going to disappear and we are likely to see an unprecedented level of social upheaval and change,” Cross says.

Cross says creative people will become more important with technical advances, but like everyone they will need to learn new tools and adapt. In fact, some in the industry believe companies using AI should compensate human workers for the changes that inevitably lie ahead.

In a recent interview with Quartz, tech magnate Bill Gates proposed corporations that used robots should be taxed to pay for social causes. And in an interview with Ozy, Jerry Kaplan said corporate tax structure needed to be changed to stop automation’s exacerbation of inequality. 

Meanwhile, in one of his final interviews in office, former U.S. President Barack Obama warned: “Automation is relentless and going to accelerate”.

However, Cross says he’s optimistic.

As with the industrial revolution there will be displacement, but that also frees up room for job creation.

Less here, more there

The AI revolution is going to affect different generations in different ways, NZTE general manager of corporate services David Downs says.

“New to the workforce or education-age people should be learning, embracing, creating and really designing the future they want. Older people like me need to ensure we encourage a glass half full approach, and that we ensure the next generations have the skills and empathy they need to be successful in a changing world.” 

In the long term, the nature of work will change and new jobs will arise.

But in terms of creativity, our brains are only part of the system of understanding, with science now saying our gut and heart also have roles to play, says Downs.

Downs believes the form of creativity that relies on patterns can be taught to robots, but adds that there’s more to human innovation than that.

“I don’t think the skills that teach patterns are the ones required for acquiring a breadth of creativity. And creativity is more often about breaking patterns than following them.”

Future learning

Head of Victoria University’s Design School Douglas Easterly says teaching creativity is as much about nurturing and cultivating an environment for inspiring ideas as it is about imparting the skills and methods to develop novel cultural products.

A key to acquiring creativity is experience, and because of this he says simulated life may never attain the full spectrum of creativity.

He sees AI as having great collaborative potential for artists, especially in the world of navigating data. Living in an isolated country like New Zealand creatives stand to gain the most from AI, he says.

“Creativity and ingenuity are rarer and more highly valued attributes than being technically adroit,” he says.

Easterly says until AI has the full complexity of sentient beings, the interest for AI-produced creative work will largely depend on human collaboration.

“Marcel Duchamp once said, ‘I don't believe in art. I believe in artists.’ I think most people hold a similar belief.”

The extent to which it will impact the fields of art, design, humour and everything in between is yet to be seen. 

Perceptions of AI will largely be shaped around how we define creativity and where we place importance, be it on knowing and understanding or ability. But one thing is for sure – the robots are definitely coming, and creatives won’t be missing the wave. But what would we inferior humans know? We decided to ask Evi. 

Idealog: When will robots take designers’ jobs?

Evi: When they grow a brain.

Idealog: And when will that be?

Evi: Thousands of years from now.

Idealog: How do you know that?

Evi: Because I know everything.