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 a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.