Creativity: Why it cannot be a machine property

10/1/2016 – A month ago, we published an article discussing the topic of machine creativity entitled “Machine creativity: What it is, and what it isn’t”. Naturally, this was not meant as the final word on the topic, but rather an invitation to discuss and deliberate on it. In the pursuit of that discussion, author and programmer Dr. Ofer Shamai, a PhD in Philosophy of Science, sent a thoughtful reply to it, expounding his thoughts on the subject with a slightly different definition of 'creativity'. Food for thought.

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Creativity: Why it cannot be a machine property

By Dr. Ofer Shamai

I found myself agreeing with every word of Albert Silver’s interesting article, “Machine creativity: What it is, and what it isn’t” (Aug. 28, 2016). As my PhD thesis addressed exactly these issues, and as I’m working on a chess A.I. project that elevates computer abilities to a realm not conquered before by machines (surprise! Coming in the next few months), I would like to elaborate on the subject.

The idea that machines can be creative is indeed a strange one. To understand why it is suggested, we need to go back to the 19th century, when the scientific community lost faith in humans’ ability to be objective. The reasons for this shift are interesting yet complicated. What is important for us is that new scientific methods were invented in order to circumvent our reliance on the human expert, including using mechanical machinery instead of humans (for example, the camera), statistical methods, and adopting the methodological principle of repeatability.

The topic of AI has fascinated for the longest time, with tales of hope, such as HAL's redeeming self-sacrifice at the end of "2010", the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"...

... to apocalyptic tales such as "The Matrix".

This revolution was led by mathematics and logic. A new logic was invented that described publicly observable information and was not dependent upon human understanding. Mathematics, and geometry in particular, ceased to depend upon human intuition. This new logic was supposed to replace human inference with strict, publicly observed mechanical rules.

Yet what exactly are mechanical rules? Turing’s model (named the Turing machine) was an ingenious answer to this query, which led to the creation of modern computers as per its principles, as well as providing a precise philosophical analysis: “Mechanical” is what can be described by a Turing machine.

One could not imagine Einstein’s general relativity without the work of mathematicians (such as Riemann) who separated geometry from our inner visual perspective and enabled our understanding physical space in differing – i.e., non-Euclidean – geometry. However, like many other great ideas, it has both strengths and drawbacks. Current Western culture tends to use strict formal rules even in places where a professional can improve upon these rules (medicine is a good example of this malicious methodology, which overestimates the importance of general statistical methods and neglects physicians’ diagnostic experience). In general, we’d rather force ourselves to obey standard, low-quality yet exact rules, and end up sacrificing ingenuity and creativity thereto.

The first major success of machine learning in a game was TD-Gammon, a program developed in 1992 by IBM researcher Gerald Tesauro. At a time when the best backgammon programs were rank beginners, Tesauro created a neural net that had the program learning by itself and self-correcting its evaluations. After 1.5 million games played against itself, it had reached a level of a strong master. All top backgammon programs that followed built upon this concept. The current best is eXtreme Gammon, superior in skill to even the best humans.

How is all this related to chess? Well, creativity is the ability to change your own previous way of thinking. We appreciate a creative chess player for finding new ideas and moves not previously thought of for a given position. In contrast, machines in general, and chess engines in particular, cannot be creative: Machines represent our modern paragon of objectivity, as they cannot deviate from their pre-assigned rules or actions. Therein lies the soul of the scientific revolution of the 19th century.

Chess engines appear to play creative moves because, in contrast to humans, they have no concepts that they apply: They calculate following restricted rules, finding moves that from a human perspective are very creative. Yet this is so not because the machines are creative in and of themselves: We humans, who cannot calculate like a machine, rely heavily on our prior knowledge, trying to apply it to new situations that we tackle on the chessboard.

Our ability to find new ways of implementing this knowledge or adapting ourselves to situations to which previous known rules do not apply, is the reason we ascribe creativeness to the seemingly creative machine moves. None of this is relevant to the description of machines’ work, as they simply obey the rules without deviation. We became so fascinated with machines’ abilities to calculate that we began believing that we humans are ourselves a kind of machine. This is a historic irony, as computers were invented in order to remedy the human “flaw” of being creative, and thus the ability to be non-normative.

I lack a proper word to describe how computers “think”; I would like to call them stupid, but we cannot call something that has no intelligence at all stupid: They are machines and as such they do not think, rather, they calculate as per pre-assigned rules. Artificial intelligence is thus not real; rather, we find sophisticated ways to use calculators for intelligent tasks. Yet these programs do not imitate the creative way humans tackle these problems.

In this sense, A.I., with its focus on results, does not help us to understand better how humans think, as it is too pragmatic to bear the required philosophical work. I hope to show the chess community what can be done when we dismantle previous paradigms and create programs that try more assiduously to follow human reasoning.

About the author

Ofer holds a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science, a Masters in History and a B.Sc. in Mathematics and Physics. He also did a Post-Doctoral in Computer Science.

In his youth, Ofer played chess, winning the national under 18 teams championship. Ofer is a co-founder at which set to revolutionize computerized chess by providing automated explanations.

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RonaldRump RonaldRump 10/8/2016 04:04
I think the illusion lies in believing there are various kinds of intelligence. There is only one intelligence and from our perspective it appears fragmented, but that perspective isn't the underlying reality.

I feel inclined to believe that each of us is a pre-programmed machine too. Press certain buttons and each of us will react in a certain manner. When we know ourselves and do feel/understand the universe at its essence, all outcomes will be known to us. There is only the natural. Terms such as "artificial" and "unnatural" are an attempt to sweep under the rug, our lack of understanding of the natural.

The entire universe is pre-programmed. Just like when a tightly compressed spring is released, each ring/layer of the spring does not know the future yet, and feels like its actions are causing the future to unfold. The initial energy inherent in the compression is what is causing the future to unfold. We, the expressions of that energy are the effect not the cause.

The universe springs forth from a compressed to a de-compressed state. In the compressed state, the different layers of the spring are not visible. It's just one whole. As it decompresses, the one splits into the many.
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 10/4/2016 10:56
for me the article is not about creativity its kind of a Commercials for decode chess program sorry to say but i aint finding something new in it. but at least the program works! as oppose to the Rainbow chess program that was suggested some weeks Before. that on i did see as a new creative way of how we humans react to symbols and colors as my favourite poet says black is the color and non is the number...
gmwdim gmwdim 10/3/2016 11:56
This is more about a definition of what constitutes "creativity" than anything related to machines.
yesenadam yesenadam 10/3/2016 08:26
Near the end I was hoping you'd now start to address the title, but it ended.

"creativity is the ability to change your own previous way of thinking" - that doesn't sound right to me. At least, it's not what's commonly meant by the word.

Although you mention neural nets, most of the article seems to just be saying "traditional pre-neural-net style programs can only follow their instructions". It seems an assumption that they "cannot deviate from their pre-assigned rules or actions" - well, that doesn't seem right either. It's a million miles from addressing let alone proving the claim of your title. It's more like an ad for your promised software.

I guess by "machine" you mean "machine running the non-creative sort of software". I wouldn't claim to intuitively understand all the types of hardware/software etc that will ever be invented. (I say that because it's kind of implied in your title.) Before I saw neural nets I assumed you had to actually write programs for what you wanted the machine to do! ..

Anyway, as as been mentioned, I did fear this was the return of Iqbal, and it's infinitely superior to his waffling, so thank goodness for that. But I did expect a lot more! (Well, philosophy of science is one of the most useless subjects there is, isn't it. :-) I know, I've studied it quite a bit. Enough to know that it's not relevant to your purported theme, although you try to drag it in.)
TheSame Wastrel TheSame Wastrel 10/3/2016 06:40
The author doesn't define terms such as "rules", "concepts" and "creativity" which is helpful for brevity but not clarity. The article seems to beg the question: Can creativity be programmed? If the answer is yes, then the author would say it's merely more rules, not creativity.
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 10/3/2016 09:46
why j nayer?
J Nayer J Nayer 10/3/2016 07:01
I got my PhD 25 years ago. This article is crap.
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 10/2/2016 06:40
good gush Iqbal aint here. well ofer what you say is kind of obvious. or sounds obvious. ai kind of intresting. but i like rather to know how hi could be developed. especially in chess. therefor it would be more intresting with an article on decoding chess in general and your site/program. and whats the diffrence with this kind of function that already in Fritz 10 or 9 had that function of describing moves with human Words. thanks and im looking forward to put myself into understanding of this and maybe buying your program
nepheloma nepheloma 10/2/2016 09:58
interesting article,thanks!