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Can Computers be Creative?
By Costa Michailidis
Ask Siri what time it is or ask Google for today’s weather and you’ll get what you need. Punch a mathematical expression into a calculator and you’ll almost never be let down. Computers are incredibly precise and reliable when it comes to these types of tasks.
“Hey Siri, why doesn’t my girlfriend like my paintings anymore?”
“Apple doesn’t tell me everything you know.”
On the other hand, there is a world of tasks computers are terrible at resolving. Why the stark difference? Will computers ever be able to understand art or be creative? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Two Types of Problems
Let’s divide our world of problems into two types. Firstly, there are problems that have a definitive answer, or multiple definitive answers. For example: Nine is divisible by which numbers? The answers are one, three and nine. The wonderful thing about these types of problems is that resolving them can be broken down into a simple sequence of steps, a procedure or a program. That’s why computers are so great at solving them. You just run the program and it spits out the answers, often at a remarkably fast pace. It’s incredible how sophisticated these algorithms, programs, have gotten and how powerful they can be. My favorite example of this type of ingenuity is IBM’s Watson.
There is a second set of problems we deal with in our lives, and these problems have no definitive answer. They are entrenched in context, deal with changing variables or unknown factors. It is either more difficult or not useful to solve these problems by taking a prescribed set of steps to reach a conclusion. The solution is often contextual, transient, or mysterious unto itself. How to write an inspiring story or make a beautiful painting? How to choreograph a dance that will dazzle an audience? We come across these challenges in the arts but also in business. Which marketing campaign will succeed? Which logo best represents our brand? So far, computers have not been very successful in this realm. The realm of the creativity.
The Heartbeat of Creativity
When we look at this second set of challenges, and observe humans that are solving these types of problems (writers, musicians, marketeers), we find them leveraging their imagination. We find them using their creativity. So, what is Creativity? Creativity has a collection of definitions, many of which highlight two factors: Novelty and value. Something which is creative has an element of novelty, or newness, and an element of value, or utility.
When a musician writes a new song lyric or when an inventor sets out to design something she considers hundreds of possibilities before converging on an appropriate option. A marketing team generates a huge number of ideas before investing the time and resources to develop a campaign for its potential customers. The next time our musician writes or our inventor innovates, they will begin again by diverging on all possibilities before converging onto the most appropriate choice. This oscillation of divergence and convergence is what I like to call the “Heartbeat of Creativity.” There is a huge volume of scholarly articles on this pattern of divergence and convergence with respect to the psychology of human creativity.
This pattern shows up in another place that is significant to our original question of whether computers can be creative: Evolution. In evolution divergence happens in the variance produced by reproduction and mutation, then convergence happens when the environment selects the varieties most suitable for survival. Evolution, like the creative mind, is constantly diverging on possibilities and converging on the most appropriate options.
What About Computers?
Let’s return to our original question: Can computers be creative?
I see hope. Pandora is a music website that curates music for you based on your and other users’ preferences. Often times Pandora plays a song for you that you’ve never heard before (novelty) and that you’re likely to enjoy (value). Choosing music that you will enjoy is certainly the type of challenge with an indefinite, transient and contextual solution. What about the creative process of divergence and convergence? That too, is beginning to make it into modern algorithms and programs. Take a look at the science behind Watson and see if you can spot the divergence and the convergence.
It seems to me that psychologists are beginning to better understand human creativity, and that engineers are beginning to learn to program it into computers. Perhaps the next great generation of artists will be made of silicon.
Here’s a question to ponder: will there be a Research in Motion in five years? How about three years? Because I don’t want to bury the lead, let me provide my answer to that question: yes, there will be a RIM…as a business unit of Microsoft.
Now, let’s explore why it might play out this way.
The backstory on RIM is straightforward. Simplifying, RIM created, and for a good while dominated, the market for secure corporate in-your-pocket email communication, with their BlackBerry mobile phone. The telephone part was not the key to its success; it was the traveling email client, which integrated nicely with corporate email servers and networks. The iPhone (or, perhaps we should call it the far sexier iPhone) was not seen, by RIM, as a threat. The iPhone, they reasoned, was a consumer phone. As long as they continued to provide the integration and backbone, they were safe.
The widespread and well-publicized RIM system failures tarnished the company’s reputation, certainly, but the greater damage was this: it provided the impetus for RIM’s corporate customers to begin investigating other options. Once I.T. departments determined if and how they could support other devices, the tide had turned.
Here’s the problem that RIM can’t seem to fix, or fails to understand: for the user, it’s all about the phone. And for corporations which have to decide which devices to support, it’s all about the user. (I will acknowledge here that the user, typically, seems to be the last priority for corporate I.T. departments. But even I.T. eventually cedes to the will of the masses, and of their bosses.)
RIM has attempted to provide phones that are equivalent to the Android and Apple smartphones, but their devices have been critical and commercial failures. The company still has its strengths, including many customers who support no other mobile device platforms; dominance in emerging markets; and the (currently, for a few more minutes) unchallenged BlackBerry Messenger application. (Apple offers iMessage, which, like BBM, works only within its own universe.)
Perhaps it’s time for RIM to reframe the problems and the opportunities. Here are a few ways the company might think about the road ahead:
How might we create a phone that users will actually want? (Idea: hire IDEO to design it.)
How might we leverage our network? (Idea: allow other non-RIM devices to co-exist on it. Oh, and make sure it’s bulletproof, too.)
How might we leverage BBM? (Idea: make it cross-platform.)
I suspect that the question RIM is asking itself, however, is how might we survive at all? And if that’s the question, the answer is: be acquired by Microsoft. Microsoft could make RIM into a very profitable division, and allow The House That Gates Built to move beyond its own failures in the phone arena.
RIM could survive on its own, too. But only if they are asking the right questions, and finding the right answers.