Almost Timely News, May 28, 2023: Can AI Truly Be Creative?

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Almost Timely News: Can AI Truly Be Creative? (2023-05-28)

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What’s On My Mind: Can AI Truly Be Creative?

Can machines be creative? For years, the artistic community has argued, to a great degree of success, that machines – artificial intelligence in particular – cannot be creative. And this argument has largely made sense. After all, AI is powered by the data it’s trained on, and it draws from that data source to regurgitate the highest probabilities based on prompts.

That might be about to change.

To dig into this, we first have to understand human creativity. Neuroscience has advanced considerably in the past few decades, thanks to tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners which can show what’s happening in the human brain in real-time as we pursue a variety of cognitive tasks. Things we previously had to guess at or use inaccurate tools like electro-encephalographs (EEGs), those crazy wiring setups where electrodes get stuck all over your head, we can now know with much greater precision and accuracy with fMRI scanners. And scientists have used these new tools to scan the brain and see exactly what’s happening when we’re being creative.

So, what is human creativity? Recent findings have shown that the same mental functions which control memory – particularly memory storage and retrieval in the hippocampus – also are responsible for creativity. There are three general mechanisms of creativity. The first is more or less daydreaming, where we recall concepts and associations, then sort of glue them together as ideas. The second is to flesh out the idea, and then the third is to build a plan to bring the idea to life.

To improve our creativity, the study shows that working on our memory, evoking memories, also improves creativity, especially creative details. Our memories are the basis for our creativity. If you think about this, this makes completely logical sense. If you ask a very young child to paint something they have absolutely no reference for, you’ll get either thematic nonsense or references to the limited information they do have.

What’s different about human creativity is that memory is very often rooted in emotion. We don’t remember things we have poor emotional connections to. Do you remember what you had for lunch on December 11, 2014? Probably not. I certainly don’t. Do I remember what I ate at my wedding? Sure do – it was steak cooked on a grill, and it was rare. (I’d ordered medium rare) Why do I remember one lunch and not another? One was not memorable because it had no emotional impact, the other did.

Our memories for things that are not rooted in either routine or emotion are, essentially, faulty. We fail to remember most things that are mundane because they’re simply not important. They’re not worth keeping available in short term memory because they’re unremarkable. We do remember things that have an emotional impact, or are repetitive and habitual because they never leave our short term memory. (one of the reasons why I advocate for weekly or even daily email newsletters, because it’s much harder to build a monthly habit)

And because human creativity is rooted in memory, we create based on our memories and the data we have available to us, knowing it’s faulty, knowing it’s inaccurate, knowing that it’s full of mistakes and distortions – but that’s okay, because those filtered memories are what makes our creativity unique.

This is in part why AI creates such… uncreative stuff. It doesn’t discriminate between emotionally impactful training data and training data that’s composed of dry, boring stuff. It treats a Tumblr blog made entirely of someone’s grocery lists with the same semantic importance that it treats Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. When AI goes to generate content from that data, it’s drawing from probabilities and frequencies, as opposed to data filtered through an emotional lens. It has no idea that the majority of its information isn’t worth remembering.

So if creativity is rooted in essentially faulty recall (yay biology), could we simulate that with machines? The answer now is yes. There are new AI projects like dreamGPT that are pursuing creativity in a novel way.

In normal generative AI, we’re striving for perfection. We’re striving for accuracy, for clarity, for correctness. We tell machines not to hallucinate things that don’t exist, not to make things up when they don’t know the answer, not to go off the rails in their language generation. We rebuke them when they draw a picture of a person holding a cup of coffee and that person’s hand has nine fingers and is in an anatomically impossible gesture.

What researchers and developers have realized is that these hallucinations, these mistakes, these inaccuracies… they may be the solution to creativity. The very things we punish algorithms for getting wrong might be the gateway to replicating a type of human creativity.

For example, suppose I started a sentence like this, which should be familiar to US and UK folks:

God save the ______

In an accuracy challenge, we would punish an AI if it answered anything except King or Queen, right? The correct answer – based on most of the data it’s been trained on – is either King or Queen, depending on the period of time you’re looking at.

“God save the rutabaga” probably isn’t what we’re looking for. It’s a mistake. But suppose you were a creative writer and you had to write a story in which a rutabaga became King of England. It’s a ridiculous prompt, a ridiculous concept, but you could probably write an entire story about it if you’re a talented writer. There are entire childrens’ TV series about talking vegetables, so it’s not that far-fetched a creative prompt.

That mistake, that hallucination from a machine could be harnessed as a seed of creativity, which is what some research projects like dreamGPT have built. I gave dreamGPT a prompt of social media marketing and had it intentionally hallucinate some ideas on the topic, like this one:

“title”: “Quantum Influencer Marketing”,
“description”: “A quantum-inspired computing system designed for influencers and marketers to help analyze social media campaigns and track metrics. The system will use quantum technology to process large amounts of data and map influencer networks in real-time. It will also be able to identify niche audiences and micro-influencers, and suggest personalized content to optimize campaigns. The system will use the strategy of influencer-based outbound marketing to promote products and services to their followers, making the campaigns more targeted and effective.”,
“noveltyScore”: 0.9,
“marketScore”: 0.8,
“usefulnessScore”: 0.7,
“easeOfImplementationScore”: 0.2,
“impactScore”: 0.8

Now, does this make a whole lot of sense? Maybe. Maybe not. Quantum computing’s power coupled with influencer marketing is an interesting idea, even if what the computer came up with is sort of non-sensical. The idea of taking concepts like superposition and quantum particle spin as a way to deal with the multiple, simultaneous states an influenced audience could be in has some appeal. In other words, as a creative exercise, as a brainstorming session, this output isn’t bad. Is it great? No. Is it better than what some of my fellow humans have come up with during corporate brainstorming sessions. Heck yes. And could it be great in a few evolutions of the technology? Absolutely.

So, what does this mean for creative folks? When we dig into creativity and how it works in the human brain, and we compare it to how creativity is being implemented in the machine neural network, we see that the outcomes – combining concepts using selective, even intentionally faulty recall mechanisms – are growing closer together. We’re making significant advances in true machine creativity that more closely resembles human creativity, and it won’t be long before machines are as creative as we are. The days of saying that machines can’t be truly creative are numbered and dwindling fast.

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ICYMI: In Case You Missed it

Besides the newly-refreshed Google Analytics 4 course I’m relentlessly promoting (sorry not sorry), I recommend the piece on political marketing. It’s not partisan, and it’s not even scoped to just the USA. It’s about how political marketing has substantially damaged society. Find out why.

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Events I’ll Be At

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  • MAICON, Cleveland, July 2023
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My company, Trust Insights, maintains business partnerships with companies including, but not limited to, IBM, Cisco Systems, Amazon, Talkwalker, MarketingProfs, MarketMuse, Agorapulse, Hubspot, Informa, Demandbase, The Marketing AI Institute, and others. While links shared from partners are not explicit endorsements, nor do they directly financially benefit Trust Insights, a commercial relationship exists for which Trust Insights may receive indirect financial benefit, and thus I may receive indirect financial benefit from them as well.

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See you next week,

Christopher S. Penn

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