Can Machines Ever Be Truly Creative? | Review

Can Machines Ever Be Truly Creative? | Review

Ulster Museum, Belfast • Thursday 23 February ’17

NI Science Festival • By Gerry Walton

We’ve all seen Terminator – that futuristic dystopia where machines take over the world and chaos ensues. Well, what if machines were to create great art, or outwit a debating opponent, or write a meaningful poem? These are the questions that a panel in the Ulster Museum debated in front of, and with, a fascinated audience as part of the NI Science Festival.

Can machines ever be truly creative? That was the banner headline for this talk, and while true artistic creativity seemingly remains off limits – the humanity and empathy of, well, humans being something a machine could never have – there were examples brought to the table that were truly remarkable and hinted at future creative inevitabilities for machines.

Marcus du Sautoy, a Professor at the Oxford University, posed questions and chaired a discussion involving a wonderful variety of guests. There was Dr Kevin Curran from the Ulster University, who was a cybersecurity specialist. His main field of interest in this topic was his tireless work at attempting to tell genuine or proxy IP packets – a proxy being something used by someone who wants to work undetected.

Also there was Dr Guruduth Banavar, the chief science officer in cognitive computing from IBM, who was also running a Turing lecture series this month at City Hall. Early on he spoke of Artificial Intelligence as something that should be thought of as Augmented Intelligence – bringing the best of human and machine together to make something that neither could do on its own. This would come up again and again through the talk – the idea that no machine can be seen to be truly autonomous while retaining the programming and framing given to it by a human.

Dr Banavar described himself as having an artist’s heart and a scientist’s heart. He spoke of how Watson was able to, after some programming, do things with jazz music he never thought possible.  He also told the story of how Watson won at Jeopardy in 2011 in the Rhyming round. Look it up and be blown away. The panellists were darkly joking around at the thought of being replaced by a group of Watsons one day. There was even talk of a chef Watson, able to take your likes from different world cuisines and come up with totally new recipes.

Luba Elliott was the third contributor to this discussion and is known as a creative AI evangelist. She spoke of Style Transfer – how the machine is able to apply a particular artistic style to a photograph, such as the Mona Lisa being changed into the style of Cubism or van Gogh.  It was like looking at a totally different image each time.

Luba also spoke of her work with machine and human-generated text and how she did her own Turing tests to see if people could tell the difference. The potential for the two to be confused came from both the impressive levels of sense the machine text made, but also the fact that the people she used were not always traditional authors.

One conclusion that was arrived at was that machines were being used as a tool to augment human creativity in whatever field they chose. However Luba also predicted that once general intelligence was solved for machines and the human features were perfected for robots, they could be truly creative, but that we haven’t reached that point.

In terms of art and music, Professor du Sautoy hit the nail on the head when he wondered whether you could reach a point where a machine could be said to have created a Rembrandt standard of art – the sheer subjective and complex emotions that gave rise to the art or piece of music being something that only a human can really possess. This magazine would appear to be safe from the machines for the foreseeable future.


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