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The Column icon The Column: Issue 9

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The Column is a monthly feature that follows the lives of creative people and explores the world of creativity.

Are Computers Creative?
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Can computers create? Yes. Are computers creative? Not yet. I could offer a definition of 'create' and 'creative' here but perhaps it's more rewarding to ponder their difference.

'The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything.'
The Countess of Lovelace writing in 1843 about her friend Charles Babbage's proposed Analytical Engine, the first computer.

'You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.'
The Borg

Masters of Metaphor

As technology advances, so many of us become increasingly married to our 'technological tools of existence'. Until relatively recently our interface with the world has been self contained. We use our senses to experience and explore the world, and we communicate to others through language and gesture. As a species we are masters of metaphor and have found this to be our most powerful means of communicating complex ideas and emotions.

Since the first cave paintings we have developed our skills in manipulating the concrete world around us to help us communicate what is of significance to us more effectively. With the development of the computer and its symbiotic partner, software, we have invented tools that allow us to manipulate and fashion our experiences and ideas in ever more subtle and complex ways.

Creative Tools

The last ten years has seen a shift in the availability of creative tools from the concrete to the virtual. Software has provided the opportunity for millions of people to explore their creativity for the first time, away from the judgments and opinions of others. We view ourselves as very much the masters of this creative process as we click a button here, choose an option there, and 'create' something new.

'Technical skill is mastery of complexity while creativity is mastery of simplicity.'
Christopher Zeeman

We gain ever more sophisticated results for diminishing effort as the world's 'creative software' caresses our egos. I guess we should be asking ourselves, who's doing the creating - or rather producing? The person manipulating the software or the software itself?

Take the common example of altering a digital photograph. A single click of the mouse can manipulate the image in a thousand ways. The software usually provides the same 'template' for a given command and therefore couldn't be considered 'creative' in the sense that it has produced something 'new', but the results may well be judged as 'creative' or at least 'inventive', especially if the viewer has not seen an image or filter achieve a particular visual effect before.

The New Symbiotic

Since the advent of computers and the development of ever more sophisticated computer interfaces, we have embarked on a new adventure. Our interaction with the world is changing, and the interface between computer and humans which began with the keyboard is evolving in new, more intimate and profound ways. Within fifty years our next great leap as a species will have taken place.

Humans will fall into one of two distinct camps. Those that embrace the new symbiotic relationship of man and machine, and those who wish to maintain their corporal independence. The creative endeavours of those within the first of these camps will inevitably lead to an increase in production and efficiency. The 'Computer Creatives' will dominate the design and direction of our future world.

'Computer Creatives' may for instance have small brain implants that stimulate specific hand movements according to particular tasks. For instance a painter might choose from thousands of available painting styles from a 'movement database', remotely transfer the movement data to his implant, and begin working within the confines of a particular style. The painter, software, implant, and body would work as one.

Warning Shot

'We are the Borg. Existence as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own'.
The Borg

The Borg is a creation from the makers of Star Trek (The Next Generation, Voyager, and First Contact). The Borg 'is' presented as a cybernetic life-form thousands of years old which is part organic, part artificial life (I use the word 'is', not 'are', as The Borg is a collective, a single entity). The Borg have one goal, namely the assimilation of other species to further their betterment. This is in contrast to the usual goals of expansion: the accumulation of power, wealth, or political influence.

Born humanoid, they are implanted with bio-chips that link their brains to a collective consciousness via a unique subspace frequency emitted by each drone. This collective consciousness is experienced by the Borg as 'thousands of voices' - they are collectively aware, but not aware of themselves as separate individuals. Consequently, they never speak in singular pronouns, referring to themselves when required as merely one of many ('seven of nine', 'third of five' etc). In Star Trek, The Borg threaten to assimilate any humans they encounter.

I've found the idea of The Borg one of the most enduring, powerful, and thought provoking ideas presented in Star Trek, whose mission has been to explore our humanity and visions of the future for over thirty five years. One of the great strengths of imaginative investigation is to lay bare different visions of our future existence, and by so doing, alert us both intellectually and emotionally to the implications of a given path.

The Computer Creates

The first stages of assimilation of the world's human inhabitants has already begun. I'm communicating to a collective right now. You, I, we, meet in this sphere we call the Internet. The essential difference from the scenario we find ourselves in and that of The Borg collective, is that at present, we are remote from this virtual meeting place and have a choice about what form our 'assimilation' takes.

'I wrote the program; the program does the pictures'
Harold Cohen

Harold Cohen, abstract artist turned computer programmer, works in the computer science department at the University of California, San Diego. Cohen has developed AARON, a set of programs to produce 'drawings' and 'paintings'. Cohen's aim was not to build a creative computer, but to cast light on the processes within the mind of a human artist.

Each time AARON operates, it produces a new painting. What it cannot do, however, is to break the bounds set by its rules. Cohen does not assert AARON is 'creative', and states it will only be classed as such when it shows signs of 'artistic development' - creating something today that it could not have done previously.

I sense the work of Cohen and others preludes a profound moment in our evolution. I have no principled objection to the use of the 'intimate interface' that could make our lives more productive and enriching. It is probable the creative professional of the future will adopt many new methods of working in an attempt to outperform the competition, including the use of cybernetic devices. It is inevitable that computers will begin to process information metaphorically, they will make 'jumps' from one idea to another and in so doing, will become creative.

My concern is that we consider the philosophical and ethical issues surrounding our new relationship with the 'creative chip' at great length and with the utmost seriousness, as in the world of the future three creative forces will dominate: motherhood; human creativity; and the cybernetic interface. Our individuality, what makes us 'us', is about to change.



A logical arithmetical or computational procedure that if correctly applied ensures the solution of a problem.


To learn and understand thoroughly; to absorb and incorporate; to become absorbed. From the Latin name assimilãre to make one thing like another, similus, like, similar.

Cybernetic Interface
A channel for communication between a computer and a person. Through this connection, a computer can communicate to a person and the person can respond to the computer.

A metaphor is a figure of speech where X is compared to Y, and where X is said to be Y: his skin is ice, his breath is fire.

A simile is a figure of speech where X is compared to Y, using the words 'as' or 'like': his skin is like ice, his breath is like fire.


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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