The Computer as Artist


Friday, July 06, 2012

Computers have taken over an astonishing array of tasks humans used to do. They fly our planes, give us directions, recommend books, set us up on dates. But can they tell us a good story?

Meet Brutus, a computer programmed to write fiction. Through a series of mathematical equations, its programmers taught the program the basics of plot, setting, and dialogue — as well as something about literary style. “There's a certain bag of tricks that Brutus had for saying things at the right time to convince the reader that 'boy there is something really deep linguistically going on here,’" says programmer Selmer Bringsjord of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The result is pretty convincing. But Bringsjord insists that the computer can’t be considered creative. “The machine is just doing what you've programmed it to do,” he argues. “If a machine is creative, the designer of the system — knowing the algorithms involved, data structure — is completely mystified by how the output came out — in my opinion, if that's not the case, then we're just cloning our own intelligence.”

Stephen Thaler says he’s cleared that hurdle. His Creativity Machine is an artificial neural network that’s able to learn by itself. Thaler’s breakthrough is that he occasionally disrupts the Creativity Machine by introducing mathematical noise that trips up the system, forcing it to generate new solutions to problems. “And therein is where discovery takes place,” he explains. “It's not in the rote memories that we have committed to memory, it's in the generalization of all those memories into concepts and plans of action.”

The Creative Machine has designed versions of all sorts of products from snack food to music to military systems.

Will we all soon be out of a job? Many of us, maybe. But Bringsjord is unconvinced that a computer will ever be able to out-think a creative person. “Creativity is very a tough nut to crack.”

(Originally aired: December 16, 2011)


Bonus Track: “Self-Betrayal,” written by Brutus, read by Ed Herbstman


Bonus Track: “The Dingularity” by Machine Intelligence (programmed by Stephen Thaler)
from the album Song of the Neurons


    Music Playlist
  1. Piano Concerto No. 27
    Artist: Daniel Barenboim
    Album: Mozart: Piano Concertos 21 & 27
    Label: EMI Classics
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. CMYK
    Artist: Ladytron
    Album: Witching Hour
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    Purchase: Amazon
  3. The Dingularity
    Artist: Stephen Thaler
    Album: Song of the Neurons
  4. Benway
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    Label: Thrill Jockey
    Purchase: Amazon
  5. Single - Brad Wood Memphis Remix
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Selmer Bringsjord and Stephen Thaler

Produced by:

David Krasnow and Jenny Lawton

Comments [2]

Burt from Alaska from Alaska

Sorry, Chuck, but neural networks are not explicitly programmed with rules. They glean them autonomously through observation of the worlds they are exposed to. In the case of Thaler's diabolical devices, certain networks that have autonomously learned their own selection rules stop the search when they are content with the product resulting from other nets autonomously bending their self-learned rules. By all accounts, the noise does not stop the creative process, so toothbrush designs, music, whatever keep coming.

Sep. 08 2014 02:00 PM
Chuck from Texas

I think the most interesting and honest guest you had in this episode was Selmer Bringsjord. In answer to the question, "Is Brutus creative?", he gave an honest answer: "Not at all. The machine is just doing what you're programming it to do."

You need only a basic understanding of computers to understand that computers simply run programs, and can do nothing more.

I did not believe your guest Stephen Thaler when, talking about his "creativity machine" creating toothbrush designs, he said "...there were no rules involved, no programmers..." Of course there were programmers and "rules" involved! What his "creativity machine" did when he "injected noise" into the program had to be directed by instructions, rules, programming - call it what you will. If there were no contingency instructions for the computer to follow when the "noise" was "injected" to interrupt the program, the computer would have come to an immediate halt and there would have been no new toothbrush designs.

Without consciousness, all a computer can do is follow program instructions. Take away the programming and then see what your "creative" computer can do. Unfortunately, it's not "sexy" to talk about programs, and doing so removes the element of mystery. It's much more interesting to anthropomorphize computers because that creates mystery and gets people to pay attention.

Jul. 14 2012 03:06 PM

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