The Big Idea | Can Computers Be Creative?

The Big Idea | Can Computers Be Creative?

May 18, 2016
  • Can a computer create a poem, painting or architectural design like a human? Hasan Bakhshi of Nesta talks to Creative Entrepreneurs.

    Thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch, many more people now know of the Imitation Game – the test devised by pioneering British computer scientist, Alan Turing to see if computers can think like humans by fooling judges into thinking they are communicating with a human. Dr. Mark Riedl, a computer scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology, proposed a variant: can a computer create an artefact, like a poem, painting or architectural design that meets the requirements of a human evaluator?

    Theoretical questions? Far from it. They go to the heart of our anxiety that machines will perform work tasks that have previously been done by humans. This month saw the opening at London’s Arts Theatre of the musical, Beyond the Fence, billed as “conceived and substantially crafted by a computer”. Intriguing though this experiment is, our research suggests that creativity may in fact be our most powerful weapon against unemployment.

    Today, more people work in creative jobs than ever before. In the UK, the official statistics show that there are 1.9 million creative jobs in the workforce, growing almost three times faster than jobs as a whole.

    Broader conceptions of creativity give even higher numbers, with US geographer, Richard Florida famously estimating that one-third of the US workforce is now in creative occupations. In 1980, at the dawn of the computer revolution, this ‘creative class’ represented less than 20 percent of the workforce, up from around 10 percent at the turn of the 20th century.

    In a much discussed study, Drs. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University assessed the prospects of automation for the US workforce over a 10-20 year horizon. They concluded that 47 per cent of jobs in the current workforce were at high risk of automation. The research raised important questions, including how resistant are creative roles specifically compared with others to automation?  It also raised the question of what exactly is creativity? In a follow-on study with Frey and Osborne published last year Nesta attempted to answer these questions.

    According to Oxford Dictionaries creativity is “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something.” At the heart of the definition is therefore an element of originality. Happily, for our purposes, there is an online service developed for the US Department of Labor called O*NET which provides open-ended descriptions of specific tasks associated with various occupations, as well as a host of variables objectively ranking occupations according to the mix of knowledge, skills, and abilities they require.

    Using this data, we hand-labelled 120 US occupations as ‘creative’ or ‘non-creative’, each time asking the question: does this job require the use of imagination or original ideas to create something? For classification (no irony intended) we used an intelligent computer and developed a machine learning algorithm to estimate the individual probabilities of all 702 occupations in the US being creative given a previously unseen vector of variables derived from O*NET.

    Our results suggested that 21 per cent of US employment was highly creative – that is, had a probability of more than 70 percent of being creative (a much smaller fraction of jobs in the United States than estimated by Florida). These occupations included artists, architects, web designers, IT specialists and public relations professionals. Furthermore, we found only a very small share of the creative workforce to be susceptible to automation: 86 percent of workers in the highly creative category were at low or no risk at all of automation.

    We replicated the analysis for the United Kingdom. Relative to the United States, the UK turns out to have a higher fraction of creative employment, constituting around 24 per cent of the workforce, and of these jobs, we found that 87 percent were at low or no risk of automation.

    The implication is clear. Countries that prioritise the development of creativity in their workforce are most likely to prosper in the 21st century. The government should take note!

    Hasan Bakhshi is Director, Creative and Digital Economy at the innovation charity, Nesta. He is a member of the Creative Industries Council and the Science Advisory Council of the Department for Culture, Media and Sports. In 2015, he was awarded an MBE for services to the creative industries. 



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