Creativity in the age of AI

AI is upending many things, roles, functions and potentially jobs as we’ve known them.
One of the hot areas of debate is creative work. I run a creative agency, so this is of particular interest to me with implications for the work we do, and people we employ. How will AI impact the creative function given what we’re seeing today (and only to become even more powerful in months and years to come) in the arenas of content generation (ChatGPT), video creation (Soara) and much more. Sam Altman recently threw the gauntlet down by claiming that AI would soon replace 95% of the functions performed by creative and marketing teams today.

Some of this surfaced in recent conversation with a legend and giant of advertising in India — Mohammed Khan, the creative genius behind several agencies including Enterprise, Contract, and Rediffusion. Whose creativity found expression in some of the most memorable campaigns, slogans and copy in Indian advertising history.

Khan’s take is that AI can never create ‘truly original’ ideas the way humans can since AI is basing everything it says/generates on what it has been ‘trained’ on by vast troves of information scoured from the internet. My understanding is that at a rudimentary level, what AI is doing is probabilistically placing one word after another based on what it has gleaned is the most likely word to follow another, inferred from everything it has ingested thus far. So in that sense it is true that AI will be unable to create something from nothing, something that is truly new — an idea, concept or even turn of phrase that has never been used before. For what it’s worth, I do use ChatGPT a fair bit and my experience suggests that it is a fantastic tool to help analyze and synthesize information and summarize and present in a fashion that is easily consumable. What I have found it less helpful for is in creating ‘good’ copy — especially when such copy needs to be interesting, clever and suggestive of a creative brain behind it.

While the above is true, it did make me wonder what human creativity is based on. Where does it come from, what is the hidden fount that generates those clever turns of phrase that moves us — to laugh, cry or more mundanely, reach for the ‘buy’ button?

Here I submit that much of human creativity is also not truly new. Even the most creative minds amongst us are informed by the world around them. The books they’ve read, the shows they’ve watched, people they’ve interacted with, what they’re taught in school or even just what they’ve observed in the world around them. Is there anything even in the human brain that truly springs from nothingness, or is all our creative thought also the personal synthesis of a vast number of concepts and ideas that we’ve been exposed to? I suspect that our best ideas are still just a novel expression of things we’ve seen, heard, read, spoken or experienced before. But clearly there is still something else, that ineffable quality that allows one person who may have been exposed to the same stimuli to generate the truly interesting and creative new thought. Perhaps this comes from the ‘nature’ part of the person vs. the ‘nurture’ in that old debate?

Why does it matter? Well, for one thing I suspect that AI modelers and builders are going to be exploring this area to empower their AI systems to come ever closer to seeming human in their ideation. Once they unlock what it is about one human brain that allows it to seem more creative than the next, perhaps they can train their AI system to do the same.
Perhaps the next generation of AI will help uncover the mysteries of the human brain, of creativity and perhaps of consciousness itself?

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