The Factory of Illusions

Artificial and Natural Creativity

Essay for the 2000 "Berliner Festspiele"

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The division of the universe of objects into "artificial" and "natural" objects is a fairly recent invention. For many centuries such a distinction would have made no sense, as everything is, ultimately, natural, everything belongs, ultimately, to Nature. At most, philosophers would have made a distinction between "natural" and "divine".

It is a sign of our century that we distinguish between the "natural" and the "artificial", between the realm of natural beings (last, but not least, us) and the realm of artificial beings, namely machines. The fascination with machines was truly born with the steam engine and the monumental revolution (the "industrial" revolution) that followed. Then machines became more and more complicated, more and more sophisticated, more and more "intelligent", until the computer was invented, and then they even became equal and sometimes superior to their inventors. At the turn of the millennium, machines run so much of our world that we are beginning to consider them a race of their own, a peer nation to the nation of humans. True: they cannot do anything unless we humans program them. But that is becoming more and more a tiny detail in the overall picture. Machines used to be capable only of computation. Now they can read, speak, reason, learn, and some can even walk. It used to be only speed that made them useful. Slowly, but steadily, they are also catching up in areas that for many thousands of years seemed exclusive to humans.

While we are less and less interested in which parts of Reality are due to divine intervention, we are more and more interested in which parts of Reality can be altered, improved, redesigned by a machine. Therefore, the explosion of the "artificial". Therefore, the partitioning of our universe in the "natural" and the "artificial". First came Artificial Intelligence, with its artificial experts (or "expert systems") and its natural language processors and visual recognizing systems and so forth, now we even have Artificial Life, with its artificial ecosystems and artificial living beings. Soon we will have Artificial Wisdom, and, thus, why not Artificial Creativity? In the beginning, a machine was an artifact capable of harnessing a form of natural energy and transforming it into another, more useful, form of energy. We still measure the performance of an engine in "horse power", the equivalent of the energy of an horse, simply because in the beginning an engine was a replacement for many horses. Then machines started performing tasks such as manufacturing and computation, and soon began replacing scores of workers and accountants. At the turn of the millennium, more and more often the piece of nature that is being replaced is us: our intelligence, our life, our wisdom, our creativity.

Alan Turing started a philosophical debate that is still lasting to our days when he first asked "can a machine be truly intelligent?" Does it make sense to speak of "artificial intelligence"? The same question applies to creativity: "can a machine be truly creative"? Does it make sense to speak of "artificial creativity"?

Turing's question led to a flurry of ideas and ultimately to disquieting conclusions. As we delve deeper and deeper into the secrets of the human mind, we find less and less that is truly unique about it. Biologists such as Humberto Maturana, JJ Gibson, Ulrich Neisser have reached the stunning conclusion that "cognition" is a general property of all living systems, which need cognitive faculties simply to survive in their environment. "Imagination" is just a means to avoid being eaten by a predator or to find food in difficult conditions, and, as such, it is pervasive if not ubiquitous in Nature. Philophers such as Jerry Fodor, logicians such as Allan Newell and linguists such as Noam Chomsky believe that the mind is a symbolic processor, and, as such, is itself but a machine. 'Imagination" is just the output of a program. Neurophysiologists such as are Gerald Edelman, Arturo Damasio and Rodolfo Llinas are sketching the picture of a brain as a neural network that obeys Darwinian principles of natural selection. The brain is doing what it is doing because that is what the "environment" selects. Our ideas are not ours, just like our behavior is not ours: ultimately, "we" are determined by our environment. "Imagination" is a consequence of changes in our neural connections due to the conditioning of our environmental. And, according to scientists like Stuart Kauffman, all of this happens to be a particular case of "self-organization" of complex systems, our brains and our lives being examples of such complex systems. A set of general laws of self-organization happen to run our universe, just like Einstein's gravitational equations and the second law of thermodynamics. We are ultimately but a by-product of a process of self-organization of life and our creativity is a by-product of a process of self-organization in our brain. Shakespeare and Michelangelo didn't know, but they were just obeying physical laws when they "created" their art.

If we wanted to prove Turing wrong by showing that a computer would never be as "unique" as our minds, we ended up proving just about the opposite: that our minds are not so "unique", after all.

Therein lies the paradox and fascination of creativity: creativity is not supposed to exist, period. If we define creativity as the thoughts that we do not have to think in order to survive, the thoughts that are not necessary for the material survival of our body in our natural environment, the thoughts that are due to our free will of expressing our feelings... that "creativity" is something that does not seem to exist.

What am I doing then when I write poetry, what am I doing when I compose music?

That is precisely what "artificial creativity" can help us explain. A machine capable of generating narrative text or visual imagery (assuming that we are close to building such as machine) is simply showing us a different meaning of "creativity". Not the unbounded spirit of the solitary mental traveler, but a spirit very bounded to its environment and very much in tune with all other individuals.

To a machine, what we call "creativity" can only mean "re-organizing knowledge and inner life in a way that is not the one I was programmed for". That is an apparent contradiction, because a machine can do only what it is programmed for. But one can write a program to employ, for example, an element of randonmess in deciding how to reorganize its data storage and internal processes. Is that enough to generate "artificial creativity"? Probably not. A machine that simply produces random specimen of text or images is not creative. Creativity (both in art and in science) is very much a process "about" the existing, prevailing culture. Creativity is about "breaking through", is about surpassing the canon, is about revealing a new perspective on Reality. Creativity makes sense only in a historical context. Einstein was creative in the context of the history of Physics, and Van Gogh was creative in the context of the history of painting. So a "creative" machine would need to have knowledge about the existing cultural paradigms, and then employ randomness of whatever technique to produce a new paradigm. And so forth.

By trying to define "artificial creativity", we are indirectly studying our "natural creativity". Just like trying to build "artificial intelligence" led to a better understanding of our "natural intelligence". Just like try to simulate life with "artificial life" is leading to a better understanding of biological mechanisms.

What would "artificial creativity" be good for? The same question applies to "artificial intelligence" and, before that, to any machine that we invented that was performing an "artificial task", from manufacturing automobiles to calculating salaries. We use the "artificial" to take care of basic tasks and focus our lifes on higher-level tasks. We don't turn screws and make calculations anymore: machines do that for us. We can focus on what to do with automobiles and what to do with salaries. Artificial creativity would allow us to take advantage of machines in generating the basic creative steps, and then build higher levels of creativity on top of them. A musician could employ a machine to generate a melody that has not been used before, or a guitar tone that has never been used before, and then use that sound to create her music. As machines get more creative, musicians could concentrate on more and more abstract aspects of their music.

The challenge will be to remain more creative than our machines.

Chomsky Noam: SYNTACTIC STRUCTURES (Mouton, 1957)
Damasio Antonio: DESCARTES' ERROR (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995)
Donald Merlin: ORIGINS OF THE MODERN MIND (Harvard Univ Press, 1991)
Edelman Gerald: NEURAL DARWINISM (Basic, 1987)
Fodor Jerry: LANGUAGE OF THOUGHT (Crowell, 1975)
Gibson James Jerome: THE SENSES CONSIDERED AS PERCEPTUAL SYSTEMS (Houghton Mifflin, 1966)
Kauffman Stuart: THE ORIGINS OF ORDER (Oxford University Press, 1993)
Maturana Humberto: AUTOPOIESIS AND COGNITION (Reidel, 1980)
Neisser Ulric: COGNITION AND REALITY (Freeman, 1975)
Newell Allen: UNIFIED THEORIES OF COGNITION (Harvard Univ Press, 1990)
Ornstein Robert: EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS (Prentice Hall, 1991)
Penrose Roger: THE EMPEROR'S NEW MIND (Oxford Univ Press, 1989)
Searle John: THE REDISCOVERY OF THE MIND (MIT Press, 1992)
Stapp Henry: MIND, MATTER AND QUANTUM MECHANICS (Springer-Verlag, 1993)
Unger Peter: IDENTITY, CONSCIOUSNESS AND VALUE (Oxford Univ Press, 1991)

Dear Mr. Scaruffi,

The Berliner Festspiele (Berlin Festival Organization) is preparing a major exhibition for the year 2000, entitled iseven Hills: Images and Signs of the 21st centuryl . It will be the central event in Berlin to mark the now millennium and will take place from 14th May to october 29, 2000.

This exhibition as a whole will audaciously seek to sketch out the world of the future: a 'Theatrum Mundi' of the 21st Century. The exhibition rooms will bring together the two cultures of the scientific world and the world of the arts and humanities, both in retrospective and in prospective views. It will be realised in collaboration with leading scientific research institutes, scholars and artists from all over the world and a number of high-tech companies. In addition to the installations produced by us, objects from over 300 museums will. be exhibited.

A catalogue of seven volumes will be published by Henschel Verlag, Berlin. The seventh volume, of which I am the editor (together with Bodo-Michael Baumunk) is entitled IThe Dreami like the seventh part of the exhibition, Its subject is the subjectivity of man and his ability to imagine, its themes are dream and phantasy, passion and the senses, the self and the game. Our authors are art historians, writers, poets as well as natural scientists. In the field of neuro sciences some of our contributors are Olaf Breidbach and Gerhard Roth (Germany), Heinz von Foerster (USA), Francisco Varela (France) and others who have not yet confirmed. We would like to ask you kindly, dear Mr, Scaruffi, to contribute an article about the power of imagination, our main subject in the exhibition.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Margret Kampmeyer-Kaeding
Curator and editor
"Berliner Festspiele"

I am delighted to hear about your interest in contributing to the catalogue. After Mrs. Kampmeyer-Käding came to know that you are not "just" a cognitive scientist, but as well a poet and music-critic, she considered you to be among the very few who might be able to write about natural and artificial phantasy, creativity and imagination. Being both, scientist and artist, we thought you are the ideal author to write about this very complex and difficult theme.

Within the section "dreaming" the central room, titled "wings of phantasy", will be dedicated to the imaginative powers of human beings. Three main aspects are presented in this room: an interactive music-installation which represents the neuronal net and two contemporary artists: Munir El Sharani, an egypt calligraph, who develops his art works from the written word itself, and Romuald Hazoumé, an object-artist from Benin, who starts out his phantasy-masks from used everyday-items: trash and rubbish. These main exhibits are surrounded by a small historic gallery on european art (grotesques, modern sculpture and "arcimboldesque" paintings) and an installation on text-generation.

This outline should just give you an idea of what our intention is, presenting inventory imagination. We are mainly interested in showing different aspects of phantasy, specially to present artificial and natural creativity side by side.

The publication is supposed to present textual and pictorial material to the themes of the exhibtion rather than being a common catalogue. For example did we ask the german film-regisseur Werner Herzog as well to contribute an essay on phantasy and imagination, even though we are not going to show his films in this room, nor any films at all.

We would be very grateful, if you will agree to our proposition. With best regards,

Yours Sincerely,
Saskia Pütz
"Berliner Festspiele"