On March 31, 1913, in the Great Hall of the Musikverein concert house in Vienna, a riot broke out in the middle of a performance of an orchestral song by Alban Berg. Chaos descended. Furniture was broken. Police arrested the concert’s organizer for punching Oscar Straus, a little-remembered composer of operettas. Later, at the trial, Straus quipped about the audience’s frustration. The punch, he insisted, was the most harmonious sound of the entire evening. History has rendered a different verdict: the concert’s conductor, Arnold Schoenberg, has gone down as perhaps the most creative and influential composer of the 20th century.
You may not enjoy Schoenberg’s dissonant music, which rejects conventional tonality to arrange the 12 notes of the scale according to rules that don’t let any predominate. But he changed what humans understand music to be. This is what makes him a genuinely creative and innovative artist. Schoenberg’s techniques are now integrated seamlessly into everything from film scores and Broadway musicals to the jazz solos of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman.
Creativity is among the most mysterious and impressive achievements of human existence. But what is it?
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Creativity is not just novelty. A toddler at the piano may hit a novel sequence of notes, but they’re not, in any meaningful sense, creative. Also, creativity is bounded by history: what counts as creative inspiration in one period or place might be disregarded as ridiculous, stupid, or crazy in another. A community has to accept ideas as good for them to count as creative.
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Advances in artificial intelligence have led many to speculate that human beings will soon be replaced by machines in every domain, including that of creativity. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, predicts that by 2029 we will have produced an AI that can pass for an average educated human being. Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, is more circumspect. He does not give a date but suggests that philosophers and mathematicians defer work on fundamental questions to “superintelligent” successors, which he defines as having “intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.”
Both believe that once human-level intelligence is produced in machines, there will be a burst of progress—what Kurzweil calls the “singularity” and Bostrom an “intelligence explosion”—in which machines will very quickly supersede us by massive measures in every domain. This will occur, they argue, because superhuman achievement is the same as ordinary human achievement except that all the relevant computations are performed much more quickly, in what Bostrom dubs “speed superintelligence.”
So what about the highest level of human achievement—creative innovation? Are our most creative artists and thinkers about to be massively surpassed by machines?
Human creative achievement, because of the way it is socially embedded, will not succumb to advances in artificial intelligence. To say otherwise is to misunderstand both what human beings are and what our creativity amounts to.
This claim is not absolute: it depends on the norms that we allow to govern our culture and our expectations of technology. Human beings have, in the past, attributed great power and genius even to lifeless totems. It is entirely possible that we will come to treat artificially intelligent machines as so vastly superior to us that we will naturally attribute creativity to them. Should that happen, it will not be because machines have outstripped us. It will be because we will have denigrated ourselves.
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Can we imagine a machine of such superhuman creative ability that it brings about changes in what we understand music to be, as Schoenberg did?
That’s what I claim a machine cannot do. Let’s see why.
Computer music composition systems have existed for quite some time. In 1965, at the age of 17, Kurzweil himself, using a precursor of the pattern recognition systems that characterize deep-learning algorithms today, programmed a computer to compose recognizable music. Variants of this technique are used today. Deep-learning algorithms have been able to take as input a bunch of Bach chorales, for instance, and compose music so characteristic of Bach’s style that it fools even experts into thinking it is original. This is mimicry. It is what an artist does as an apprentice: copy and perfect the style of others instead of working in an authentic, original voice. It is not the kind of musical creativity that we associate with Bach, never mind with Schoenberg’s radical innovation.
So what do we say? Could there be a machine that, like Schoenberg, invents a whole new way of making music? Of course we can imagine, and even make, such a machine. Given an algorithm that modifies its own compositional rules, we could easily produce a machine that makes music as different from what we now consider good music as Schoenberg did then.
But this is where it gets complicated.
We count Schoenberg as a creative innovator not just because he managed to create a new way of composing music but because people could see in it a vision of what the world should be. Schoenberg’s vision involved the spare, clean, efficient minimalism of modernity. His innovation was not just to find a new algorithm for composing music; it was to find a way of thinking about what music is that allows it to speak to what is needed now.
Some might argue that I have raised the bar too high. Am I arguing, they will ask, that a machine needs some mystic, unmeasurable sense of what is socially necessary in order to count as creative? I am not—for two reasons.
First, remember that in proposing a new, mathematical technique for musical composition, Schoenberg changed our understanding of what music is. It is only creativity of this tradition-defying sort that requires some kind of social sensitivity. Had listeners not experienced his technique as capturing the anti-traditionalism at the heart of the radical modernity emerging in early-20th-century Vienna, they might not have heard it as something of aesthetic worth. The point here is that radical creativity is not an “accelerated” version of quotidian creativity. Schoenberg’s achievement is not a faster or better version of the type of creativity demonstrated by Oscar Straus or some other average composer: it’s fundamentally different in kind.
Second, my argument is not that the creator’s responsiveness to social necessity must be conscious for the work to meet the standards of genius. I am arguing instead that we must be able to interpret the work as responding that way. It would be a mistake to interpret a machine’s composition as part of such a vision of the world. The argument for this is simple.
Claims like Kurzweil’s that machines can reach human-level intelligence assume that to have a human mind is just to have a human brain that follows some set of computational algorithms—a view called computationalism. But though algorithms can have moral implications, they are not themselves moral agents. We can’t count the monkey at a typewriter who accidentally types out Othello as a great creative playwright. If there is greatness in the product, it is only an accident. We may be able to see a machine’s product as great, but if we know that the output is merely the result of some arbitrary act or algorithmic formalism, we cannot accept it as the expression of a vision for human good.
For this reason, it seems to me, nothing but another human being can properly be understood as a genuinely creative artist. Perhaps AI will someday proceed beyond its computationalist formalism, but that would require a leap that is unimaginable at the moment. We wouldn’t just be looking for new algorithms or procedures that simulate human activity; we would be looking for new materials that are the basis of being human.
PG suggests that humans and AI are likely to have a prickly relationship for quite a long time.
PG wonders how the author of the OP would regard creative genius as manifested in humans with severe mental illnesses or addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Vincent Van Gogh spent time in a psychiatric clinic.
Edvard Munch wrote, “I can not get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them.” His best-known painting, The Scream, can certainly be interpreted as an expression of someone in the throes of mental illness.
Quite a number of well-known writers have died from the effects of their chronic alcoholic consumption.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Raymond Chandler, Dylan Thomas, Grace Metalious, Dorothy Parker, and Carson McCullers come to mind.
Is a severely-impaired human being more truly creative than an unimpaired artificial intelligence?