Artificial intelligence, creativity and metis

Boris pointed me to CreativeAI, an interesting article about creativity and artificial intelligence. It offers a really nice overview of the development of the idea of augmenting human capabilities through technology. One of the claims the authors make is that artificial intelligence is making creativity more accessible. Because tools with AI in them support humans in a range of creative tasks in a way that shortcuts the traditional requirements of long practice to acquire the necessary technical skills.

For example, ShadowDraw (PDF) is a program that helps people with freehand drawing by guessing what they are trying to create and showing a dynamically updated ‘shadow image’ on the canvas which people can use as a guide.

It is an interesting idea and in some ways these kinds of software indeed lower the threshold for people to engage in creative tasks. They are good examples of artificial intelligence as partner in stead of master or servant.

While reading CreativeAI I wasn’t entirely comfortable though and I think it may have been caused by two things.

One is that I care about creativity and I think that a good understanding of it and a daily practice at it—in the broad sense of the word—improves lives. I am also in some ways old-fashioned about it and I think the joy of creativity stems from the infinitely high skill ceiling involved and the never-ending practice it affords. Let’s call it the Jiro perspective, after the sushi chef made famous by a wonderful documentary.

So, claiming that creative tools with AI in them can shortcut all of this life-long joyful toil produces a degree of panic for me. Although it’s probably a Pastoral worldview which would be better to abandon. In a world eaten by software, it’s better to be a Promethean.

The second reason might hold more water but really is more of an open question than something I have researched in any meaningful way. I think there is more to creativity than just the technical skill required and as such the CreativeAI story runs the risk of being reductionist. While reading the article I was also slowly but surely making my way through one of the final chapters of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which is about the concept of metis.

It is probably the most interesting chapter of the whole book. Scott introduces metis as a form of knowledge different from that produced by science. Here are some quick excerpts from the book that provide a sense of what it is about. But I really can’t do the richness of his description justice here. I am trying to keep this short.

The kind of knowledge required in such endeavors is not deductive knowledge from first principles but rather what Greeks of the classical period called metis, a concept to which we shall return. […] metis is better understood as the kind of knowledge that can be acquired only by long practice at similar but rarely identical tasks, which requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances. […] It is to this kind of knowledge that [socialist writer] Luxemburg appealed when she characterized the building of socialism as “new territory” demanding “improvisation” and “creativity.”

Scott’s argument is about how authoritarian high-modernist schemes privilege scientific knowledge over metis. His exploration of what metis means is super interesting to anyone dedicated to honing a craft, or to cultivating organisations conducive to the development and application of craft in the face of uncertainty. There is a close link between metis and the concept of agility.

So circling back to artificially intelligent tools for creativity I would be interested in exploring not only how we can diminish the need for the acquisition of the technical skills required, but to also accelerate the acquisition of the practical knowledge required to apply such skills in the ever-changing real world. I suggest we expand our understanding of what it means to be creative, but without losing the link to actual practice.

For the ancient Greeks metis became synonymous with a kind of wisdom and cunning best exemplified by such figures as Odysseus and notably also Prometheus. The latter in particular exemplifies the use of creativity towards transformative ends. This is the real promise of AI for creativity in my eyes. Not to simply make it easier to reproduce things that used to be hard to create but to create new kinds of tools which have the capacity to surprise their users and to produce results that were impossible to create before.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent interaction and game designer who makes things with technology for play, learning and creativity.