On AI-Assisted Creativity

tl;dr

In which I suggest, quite longwindedly, that the next great avant-garde movement in art & music & writing will be AI-Assisted Creativity. I’ll probably edit this later, but it’s something I want to think through and am happy to talk with others about. I’m genuinely very interested in the future of art/creativity and also wondering about others’ opinions and views, where mine fall short, etc.

The First Realization of the Avant-Garde Dream

Before I got into software, I wanted to be an artist. My main focus was on avant-garde art, doing something new, and pushing boundaries—eventually with the goal of merging the mundanities of our everyday lives with our artistic output, such that the entirety of our existence becomes a single, continuous, expressive work of art.

This was the goal of the Happenings in the sixties, the Dadaists in the 20s, even Andy Warhol when he essentially suggested art was all around us, even at the grocery store. (In a strange way this is something akin to the old zen-philosophy, of fully *being* in every moment, seeing its beauty.) And it’s still the goal of performance art that breaks the boundaries between life and performance, like Sleep No More in NYC, and many others across the world. The point is this: you no longer know where reality ends and artifice begins. Because of this, ideally, everything is a form of joyful, creative expression, nothing is ‘work’, and we get lost in an ideal world where we can be artists not workers at some job we don’t care about.

At first, this seemed like a desirable goal to me, and it seemed like it was becoming increasingly possible with more and more online media outlets like YouTube, and Instagram, Facebook and others allowing us to document and color every moment of our lives however we’d like. Every meal, every night out, every workout, all of them can become part of the artwork that is your life—as you present it anyway—a sort of of online self portrait that’s always a work in progress and might just live forever as pure electricity flowing around our planet from satellite to satellite, computer to computer, long after you’ve turned to dust.

There’s something wild and Romantic about that notion, and back in 2009 or 2008, saying those kinds of things at art classes in a University got lots of people angry. But here we are, in 2016, and that’s more or less what happened at some level. Today, I’d suggest, the dream of the avant-garde of the 20th century has largely been fully realized: all of our lives are one continuous artwork, and every moment we’re making art, working on those self-portraits, whether we like it or not. We’re writing, we’re taking photos, films, always and obsessively critiquing.

However, the dream has been realized perversely. Rather than turn everything into joyful creativity, it’s turned all of our lives into one continuous exercise in content farming—it’s not artwork, it’s just **work**, and sometimes even __getting a job__ requires social media presence as a daily necessity. And more pointedly, rather than allowing using to create artwork for our own joy and benefit, we generally cede all copyrights to companies the second we hit post, send, or click.

None of this is news, but the point I’m intending to make is this:
 1) In the 20th century, experimental artists desired to merge art and life together, this was called the avant-garde
 2) By the early 21st century this dream has succeeded. In countries like the United States, many people spend their entire day creating artwork (writing, photos, videos) on platforms like Instagram, or YouTube, etc, Twitter, etc.
3) But rather than freeing artists from the strictures of work and labor, turning life into a wild, creative dream, it’s generally created a more subtle dystopia, where creating artwork is an extra necessary part of daily life
4) So, while the Avant-Garde dream has succeeded, it’s also failed, and in doing so, it’s planted the seeds for the next great trend in artistic innovation, namely: where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

Okay, so the Avant-garde dream succeeds, but it creates its own problems, at least in this conception. Now we’re all artists, but we’re giving away our artistic work & hence our very lives to companies that subtly control us in more ways than we really know, and we do so *by the very act* of creating the artwork that we’re more or less necessitated to produce in order to succeed in 21st century life. (When’s the last time you tried to apply for a job that didn’t want to see your personal ‘fun’ Github projects, your witty Twitter comments, or your LinkedIn profile?)

My suggestion is that the really innovative artists will take things one step further. They’ll attempt to merge our digital lives with the very algorithms that control them.

There’s long been a movement, in both software and art, to create programs that allow us to generate artwork, or music, or writing that is more or less indistinguishable from that created by a human. There are reasons for this, and besides being cool, it serves as a basis Turing Test of sorts for machine creativity and has implications for the P vs NP problem that forms the foundation of theoretical computer science. For instance: are all creative problems ‘solvable’ by computers in Polynomial time? And if so, aren’t we just computers, etc., etc…

That’s interesting stuff, but more interesting to me, and more groundbreaking is the idea of merging the computational infrastructure that makes up our digital lives with the artwork that we produce. That is: can we **use** AI algorithms to __supplement__ our creativity, rather than replace it altogether?

For example, here are two projects that I’ve come across recently which sparked my interest:

Both are attempts to computationally generate art that’s completely indistinguishable from human-created artwork. But they could be even better with a human touch. I think this kind of work is truly incredible, but only halfway there. We still need a human element, and by working with computers, we are taking the next step in avant-garde art, though I still wonder what the next set of repercussions may be.

Examples of what I’m thinking

  • Musical: A musical group where one of the improvising performers is an AI, and the others are reacting to this improvisation in real-time. This could be a way to spur creativity in the songwriting process.
  • Textual: Computationally generate a short story, or news article, and then have a human read through and improve it, cutting down the time to produce high-quality content by a huge factor
  • Visual: Computationally generate dozens of images based on some input criteria, maybe just the mood you’re in or ideas you have, then improve upon these for your final artwork

Practical Thoughts: Outsourcing Creative Work

The theme here is outsourcing creative work to computers, so *we* can produce higher quality work in shorter periods of time. Just like your programming IDE can generate the outline of your project, why not have an AI generate the outline of your novel?

Ideally, in doing so, we’ll be taking the next step in avant-garde art by once again rebelling against the idea of being forced to do ‘work’, outsourcing the hard/boring stuff to computers, and only making art that’s fun for us: when we feel like it, and how we feel like it. An algorithm can either subtly control us, or it can do our chores.

 

On Haskell’s Usability

Being someone who programs but also values my sanity and doesn’t work on anything as important as mission control systems, the #1 way that I evaluate how much I like a programming language is usability: do I enjoy using it?

But I’ve never found something that seemed completely intuitive to me.

And the worst of everything was Haskell. I tried learning it a few times because–in theory–it seems so damn cool.

But actually using for a real project seemed kind of futile. It feels like you’re literally fighting with the compiler sometimes, and the syntax is extremely foreign to someone who came of age using C family languages. At least when you first start.  There are so many times when I’m going through exercises and think — yeah I know exactly how to do that:  I’ll hash this, then run so and so’s algorithm on it… but then you can’t even get I/O because that’s a Monad or something.

Today, I was going through yet *another* Haskell book, Chris Allen’s Programming Haskell From First Principles, and I finally did an exercise that made it click: Binary Tree Traversals.

Here’s a Binary Tree data structure:

And here are all the traversals:

You don’t need to make stacks and queues or keep track of what’s been visited. Instead it’s like drawing a picture. You can pattern match everything, literally placing the values where you want them to  *visually* end up in the resulting list, and it gets built up through the natural recursion. Each recursive call builds its own sublist, and then–only when that recursion is finished–the resulting list gets added into the bigger one which is eventually returned. The simplicity is kind of mind blowing.

But what’s interesting to me  is that getting to the point where this makes sense takes so long. So much frustration. And then out of nowhere, it’s all so simple. Haskell is the only programming language I’ve ever learned where I felt that way.

Most of the others have what you might call linear learning curves. Some are steeper than others, but you see results immediately. With Haskell, you read three books and still don’t totally understand what the hell is going on. Then, you’re doing a random exercise one day, and not only do you  “get” it, but you realize it’s amazingly simple. I don’t know if that’s good usability. But it’s a unique experience, and one that’s very satisfying.

So I guess what I’m saying is this:  Don’t give up if you’re trying to learn this stuff. When you least expect it, everything will click. And then you’ll wonder why it took so long.