AI Won’t Replace Creativity

It’s always been odd to me, seeing “creative” in so many job titles. Creativity isn’t part of a profession. Creativity is a fundamental part of being human. Creative problem solving has made us the dominant species on the planet, and we’re going to need a lot more of it to dig ourselves out of the mess we’ve made getting there. Given the mounting crises surrounding us, it seems like a foregone conclusion we should be harnessing as much of our shared creative energies as possible. Artificial intelligence is poised to help us harness this energy, but recent developments in generative AI have caused rampant speculation that technology might stamp out creativity altogether.

Earlier this year Théâtre D’opéra Spatial, a piece of digital art created by Jason Allen using Midjourney, won a top prize in Colorado’s State Fair. The backlash was swift, with people predicting the “death or artistry” and lamenting the end of creative jobs. In early December, as people flocked to the Lensa app for striking AI-generated headshots, similar concerns were buzzed about. More recently, ChatGPT has led to similar hysteria, with blog posts forecasting that most jobs involving humans conjuring words are sure to be lost. While the panic is understandable, I see generative AI as less of a threat and more of a powerful tool for inspiring a new era in creativity. 

With generative AI, humans are in control of the outcomes. Allen spent about 80 hours creating Théâtre D’opéra Spatial. Selecting from the nearly 900 results his Midjourney prompts returned, Allen Photoshopped his favorites and then upped their resolution using Gigapixel. It was an orchestrated effort between human and machine that produced remarkable results. Of course, it only became art once other humans saw and reacted to it.

I’ve spent my entire career working equally in design and technology, and have come to realize that almost all art is a manifestation of this kind of co-creation. A story written by Flannery O’Connor is co-written by the reader, who participates by using their imagination to interpret what’s being communicated. O’Connor’s words are a muse for her readers, who add details to the story in their mind’s eye. Whether a piece of art is an impressionist painting or a high resolution photograph, the viewer completes it. In essence, the viewer and creator are both artists. As such, no machine will replace creativity unless it both creates and views it.

DALL-E, Midjourney, and their ilk have revealed themselves as powerful tools for unskilled artists to begin a story that the viewer can finish. People still come up with the nugget idea and then, using a vast collection of work by skilled artists throughout human history, the machine paints the picture. In some ways, you could argue that the collaboration includes the many artists, both living and dead, whose works the AI is pulling information from. Either way, the viewer completes the art by taking it in. ChatGPT is similar. If a user provides a suitable prompt, AI can generate a remarkably effective short story that fulfills its destiny as a creative work once someone reads it.

While it’s true that AI will negate some low-level content creation jobs, it will also create new roles. Skilled people will need to guide AI as it creates content. Skilled people will also need to vet this content, edit this content, integrate it strategically, and codify its place inside an organizational ecosystem. I think the senior advisor to OneReach.ai’s academic fellowship, professor Daniel Lametti, said it nicely in a recent Slate article about the intersection of AI and college papers, “These bots solve the problem of the blank page by providing a starting point for papers … I frequently used ChatGPT while working on this piece. I asked for definitions that, after a fact-check, I included. At times, I threw entire paragraphs from this piece into ChatGPT to see if it produced prettier prose. Sometimes it did, and then I used that text. Why not? Like spell check, a thesaurus, and Wikipedia, ChatGPT made the task of writing a little easier. I hope my students use it.”

This points to one of the core strengths of AI. By taking over the tedious tasks that typically keep humans from enjoying their work, we humans will have more time to do what makes us happy, what we were literally built to do: creative problem solving.

The creation of art has, for a long time, belonged to those who suffered through the slog of learning to master the tools, leaving out those that did not. Generative AI tips the scales so that most people will no longer be destined to simply purely finish other people’s art as a viewer. More people will be empowered to create art that inspires others. Writing and visual art can join the ranks of photography, where everyone can play. It won’t be the end of artists and writers, but the beginning of a more lush ecosystem of co-creation between people. It will also engender a greater appreciation for the people who can make art without using a smart machine.

This idea of lush ecosystems of creation is particularly interesting to me. I read a recent interview with Kickstarter’s former CEO, Yancey Strickler in which he suggested thinking of online creative practices as being part of a creative ecosystem rather than a creative economy. 

“Ecosystems have life, death, sustenance, competition, pain, rebirth, all of it,” Strickler said. “This is the truth of creativity in each individual person’s practice, as well as the giant space itself. Ecosystem is a far better word.”

This is certainly more conducive to the hyperautomation mindset. An ecosystem of technology, people, and data that’s guided by human hands to leverage the best solutions technology has to offer is a powerful thing. One of its immediate benefits is freeing people from those monotonous processes that ruin most days. Hyperautomation and conversational AI are inevitable, and in these early days we have our best chance to chart its trajectory.

The goal with AI and hyperautomation should always be to facilitate and inspire more human creativity and never to stifle or eradicate it. It’s also worth remembering that the fears people have about being replaced by technology aren’t anything new. Some 200 years ago the Industrial Revolution eliminated or fundamentally disrupted many jobs in manufacturing and the textile industry. In its wake, however, many new roles emerged. Wages increased and the standard of living in the Western world improved. As with this incoming transition, the change required was traumatic, but led to more opportunity.

As humans we have a knack for staying busy—for finding new ways to flex our creativity. Surrealist painter and famed zoologist Desmons Morris makes a salient point in this regard: “We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species.”

As I see it, our creativity won’t be limited by new technology, it will be further unleashed.

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