Will creative machines take people's jobs?

Can computers be creative? Lynda Gratton explains how we should prepare for a world where artificial intelligence will master creativity.

Can computers be creative? Ed Rex believes we’re heading towards a world where artificial intelligence will master creativity. Professor Lynda Gratton explains how people should prepare for it.


“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein but also to philosopher C.E.M. Joad, among others: a well-hidden source indeed.

But the idea behind the phrase raises questions: if creativity is copied, is it original? And if creativity can be replicated, can creative concepts be learned? The consensus is that machines can’t be creative. But if creativity can be learned, where does that leave art?

At TEDxLondonBusinessSchool 2016, Ed Rex, Founder of Jukedeck, which creates unique, royalty-free soundtracks for videos, plays four familiar chords on a keyboard from Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’. He explains that if you hum the same chords again, you may also hear Glee’s theme tune, ‘Don't stop believin'’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1788. He shows that the same chords can be played in different ways to different songs.

“Music is copied: sometimes consciously, but, more often, subconsciously,” says Rex. He quotes Jonathan Gottschall, Research Fellow at Washington & Jefferson College, who says that people learn to tell stories by adding a little imagination to what already exists; an addition here, an exaggeration there. He says computers will be able to master this using a similar process of “immersion, assimilation and recombination”. Rex uses this for the basis of his argument: the best artists are those who work the hardest to adapt and merge ideas.

“Great artists immerse themselves in a huge amount of art,” says Rex. “They assimilate it and then recombine it in novel ways to produce something new.” While creativity is thought to be uniquely human, artificial intelligence (AI) is changing what we think we know.

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice in Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, has studied the future of work and how people might thrive while living longer. She says that creativity is an imperative skill for the future. Similarly, the World Economic Forum‘s ‘Future of Jobs Report’ states that cognitive abilities, such as creativity, will be a crucial skills requirement.

“Some argue that up to 60% of the work we currently do will be replaced by machines within the next couple of decades,” she says. “Of course, this is already happening. The ‘hollowing out’ of work has already seen much medium skilled work disappear as executives’ thumbs and their smartphones replace secretaries, while assistants are being replaced by a combination of Wikipedia and automatic filing.

“Perhaps the issue is time. Computers can’t make decisions better than humans right now, but what about in 30 years’ time? Or perhaps it’s not about time, but more about combinations. Ken Goldberg, an AI expert, believes it’s through the combination of computers and people that real progress will be made.”

The rise of machines raises big questions: if people who live longer need to be more creative to work into their 60s and 70s, will organisations rely on them or AI to perform inventive tasks? And what happens when human and machine creative ability become equally matched?

Creative computers: human progress or decline?

Today, with the help of AI, there are self-driving cars. But driving – like creativity – used to be a skill thought to be intended only for humans.

Cooking is another example. IBM developed the world’s smartest cooking machine, which has produced its own recipe book. IBM’s Chef Watson submits recipes based on flavour compound algorithms. The one-off menus it suggests are based on information wholly learned.

Does Chef Watson signal the end of our greatest chefs? “If machines can immerse themselves in huge bodies of data, assimilate and make sense of it, why aren’t there more AI chefs, artists and musicians?” Rex says. Media hype suggests that robots will take on more of these jobs: but they won’t replace people – there will simply be more creativity in the world. 

In 2015, creative industries employed more people than the automotive sector in the US, Europe and Japan combined, according to this WEF report. So the fear of losing out to machines is significant. In the same year, the music industry alone employed 3.98 million people. Yet Rex, a musician and composer, is working with computers to create machine-made songs. 

“At Jukedeck, we’re using artificial neural networks.” A series of connected nodes, which represent the neurons and synapses in the brain: they run a chain reaction to an input and an output – in this case, music. “If you give the network the beginning of a piece of music, and tell it to finish it, it can write its own songs,” he explains.

Despite their concerns, people have nothing to fear from creative computers: “I think that people will always be creative,” Rex says. “When AI can drive trucks, people might not drive trucks anymore. But just because I’m not the best composer in the world, doesn’t mean that I’ll stop writing music.

“Creative machines will never stop humans being creative.”

AI and the future of work

Professor Gratton refers to Moravec's paradox, the discovery by robotics researchers that high-level reasoning requires little computation, while low-level sensorimotor skills require lots. “Computers are really good at things we find tricky – solving mathematical equations, playing chess and even driving cars,” she says. “These are tasks that require speed and precision. But machines are bad at other tasks we find easy – like clearing the coffee cups from a table or, to a degree, being creative.”

So how should people prepare for a world where machine-made music is commonplace? Professor Gratton says that our intangible assets, such as the type of work an employee is given to perform, needs serious consideration. Work that is valuable now, and likely to be in the future, has three crucial elements:

  • Work must be interesting and allow people to engage their creative minds

  • It must offer developmental potential – particularly in terms of capabilities that are ‘portable’, in the sense that they can be used beyond the current jobt

  • Work must be non-routine and therefore unlikely to be substituted in the short term by robotics or AI.

Rex argues for the rise of creative AI. He says:

1.  When machines can be creative, there will be more art in the world, which means that art will be cheaper and more accessible for people who can’t afford it.
2.  With AI, anyone can create art on their computer – be that video, photography or music – and use it freely in their work.
3.  Creative AI is going to change the way people consume music. You won’t find yourself listening to carbon copy songs on opposite sides of the world anymore. Music will be much more varied and personalised to you.
4.  AI will improve everyone’s level of creativity. People will compete with robot experts – forcing them to become an even better source of ideas.

So, should coders and researchers leave creativity alone? If you’re striving for a world with bigger and better novel ideas, there’s no easy answer.

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