It’s no secret that the world is being automated and that millions of people are losing work as a result. With a properly programmed machine, any unskilled laborer can be replaced.
Factory workers, cashiers, drivers — these are all employees at risk of losing their jobs to more efficient workers with silicon chips and no desire for a paycheck. Even some white collar professionals should be worried.
But creative people are safe, aren’t they? No machine or piece of software can emulate the passion of an artist, right?
Wrong, sort of. Human creativity is important, but — sorry guys — the robots are coming for you too.
Recent years have brought forth great advancements in artificial intelligence, but until recently, creativity has been reserved for people.
Creativity is a fascinating human phenomenon — one that’s difficult to pinpoint and define — but, like all aspects of the mind, scientists try to simulate it. The more we learn about it, the easier it becomes to break it down into a language of algorithms.
With artificial creativity, software can craft music and write literature, arguably just as well as humans can.
Give the above track a listen. It’s one of many musical pieces written by a bot called Emily Howell. “She” can write an infinite amount of new music all day for free, and a blind test showed that people couldn’t tell the difference between her work and the work of human composers. Crazy, right?
The technology works by analyzing human compositions and synthesizing an original output while retaining many of the same distinguishing characteristics. In the case of Emily Howell, creator David Cope encourages and discourages the program in an effort to “teach” it to compose music more to his liking. It’s almost like he’s training a Pandora station — except it’s all original music written and performed just for him, at no charge.
What are the commercial applications of this technology? Well, beyond the obvious potential to sell computer-written tracks to humans, The Atlantic’s William Hochberg suggests “…endless streams of original music in shopping malls that can respond to crying babies with soothing harmonies, as well as time-saving tools for busy composers.”
Knowing that software can compose music, it should come as no surprise that the written word is a piece of cake for computers as well.
Enter Narrative Science — a company that trains computers to write news stories. Said stories run on publications like Forbes, along with many other Internet giants, covering everything from sports to the latest corporate earnings statements.
If you saw this paragraph in the wild, you’d never know it was written by a computer:
“Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning […]”
Narrative Science’s co-founder and CTO Kristian Hammond predicts that “more than 90 percent” of news will be written by computers in 15 years.
Approximately 8.5 percent of the articles on Wikipedia were written by a bot. Lsjbot, created by Sverker Johansson of Sweden, writes 10,000 new articles for the site every day.
Computer-written literature goes far beyond short news content and Wikipedia articles, though. Economist Phil Parker, for example, doesn’t write most of his books. He instead uses complex algorithms that can author an entire book, cover to cover, in just a few minutes. The algorithms essentially mimic the thought process behind formulaic writing, making it very easy and efficient to crank out new books all the time.
Parker’s company, ICON Group International, has auto-written more than a million titles. Most of them are nonfiction books on specific niche topics, but the software can also write poetry. I’m not kidding:
Paintings, Photography, & Computer Vision
Machines are also capable of creating visual art, like this painting made by Harold Cohen’s autonomous art-making program AARON. AARON mixes its own paint, washes its own brushes, and creates breathtaking artwork.
Asked what the future holds for his program, Cohen told PBS:
I didn’t write it to have it do what I can do perfectly well myself; I wrote it to discover what an independent (machine) intelligence might do, given some knowledge of the world and some rudimentary physical capabilities. And, in the process, to have IT teach ME about possibilities I hadn’t imagined. I’d be happier if AARON’s work in the future were LESS like human work, not MORE like human work.
Software has also advanced the photography landscape, allowing photographers to produce work unlike anything that was possible in decades past. MIT’s Antonio Torralba, for example, notes that superimposing multiple images together can create the illusion that the resulting image was hand-drawn with a pencil.
Torralba works in artificial intelligence, focusing on computer vision and image interpretation. He and his team have created a Visual Dictionary comprised of more than 2 million images to teach computers to visually recognize more than 50,000 English nouns:
“The goal is to develop a system that is able to recognize all those 50,000 objects,” Torralba told MIT News.
Without a doubt, artificial intelligence and artificial creativity have a lot to gain from computer vision.
What Does This Mean For Us?
It’s unlikely that musicians will lose fans to machines any time soon. But in the future, software may serve as a welcome addition to the creative process, helping composers produce new music and even predicting big hits. Our shopping trips may be serenaded by original, computer-generated compositions, and we just might find ourselves buying computer-written music on iTunes.
As for writing, the transition is already happening in some areas. News content, particularly in the sports and finance spaces, is increasingly automated. But don’t hold your breath for a world without human writers.
Computers can already create stunning visual art, and the possibilities in that realm are limited only by their ability to continue to learn about the world and portray it in an artistic way.
Can something created by an algorithm with no human thoughts or emotions constitute art? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. Creativity is a very human thing. Art, being as subjective and emotional as it is, is something humans will likely always do best. But machines can certainly help along the way.