We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A View from Margaret A. Boden

Artificial Creativity

Why computers aren’t close to being ready to supplant human artists.

  • October 20, 2015

Artificial intelligence has an Achilles’ heel. It can’t decide what’s relevant.

Margaret A. Boden

It just so happens that this is a crucial skill where creativity is concerned. Take computer-generated art. Such work has been well received in many prominent settings over the past few years—Ernest Edmonds’s wonderfully colored interactive pieces (shown alongside Mark ­Rothko’s canvases) in the 2007 ­“ColorField Remix” exhibition in Washington D.C., for example, and Richard Brown’s Mimetic Starfish, commissioned for the opening of London’s Millennium Dome, which the Times of London described as “the best thing in the Dome.”

This story is part of our November/December 2015 Issue
See the rest of the issue

But those artworks didn’t depend on a subtle appreciation of relevance. The Edmonds work is abstract: vertical stripes of ever-changing colors, with no representational content whatsoever. The Starfish, which brings to mind real-life animals and movements, and even natural reactions such as curiosity and alarm, has no specific cultural associations.

Or in the realm of music, consider the creativity of a DJ (see “The Hit Charade”). What a DJ does is purely “combinational” creativity, or putting familiar ideas together in unfamiliar ways. DJs make no new music. Rather, they combine and order familiar pieces in unfamiliar ways. The value depends not only on the novelty of the DJ’s choices but on their aptness: their capacity to remind us of musical or cultural associations that wouldn’t have occurred to us otherwise.

The wider cultural associations are especially relevant when the music has lyrics. Think of “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles. However haunting the music, it would be less valued, and less memorable, without the words. The harsh discordance of the music and the near-savage sounds of the cellos reinforce the bitter sadness of the lyrics. They conjure up the loneliness and despair of Father ­McKenzie, as well as Eleanor Rigby herself, with extraordinary depth and richness.

A good DJ can take such things into account. For instance, a bitter song such as that one could segue into a sickly-sweet one, with the human audience enjoying the irony.

Pandora can’t do that. AI’s natural language processing is hugely limited by ­relevance blindness, the result of a computer that lacks semantic understanding or literary knowledge. Computers have written “novels,” but the prose is horrifically bland. And computer-generated soap opera plots (which can ignore verbal and grammatical elegance) will win no Tonys.

We still need people for that.

Margaret A. Boden, a research professor of cognitive science at the University of ­Sussex, is the author of Creativity and Art: Three Roads to Surprise.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.