Saturday, 16 October 2010

can robots sing the blues?

This is an image from 3rd April, 2010 in the New Scientist. The article was called 'The nuts and bolts of creativity'. It's an image created by a robot, programmed to approximate the wrist flexes, pressure etc, of an artist drawing a face.

This has had me foxed for a long time. What does it say about how people view the idea of 'creativity'? Creativity equals skill-with-the hand-and-eye - if you copy how the fingers move, the robot is apparently being creative. But what's creative about robotic implementation of an algorithm?

The idea that creativity equals manual dexterity seems to be quite widespread, perhaps particularly amongst people who think they can't draw. What seems to be missed is the fact that a person drawing is trying to say something about how they experience the world. What looks like cleverness isn't necessarily perceived as such by the person doing it at all. They're off on their own trip, trying to do something that makes sense to them internally, privately, existentially. And, at the moment, a robot can't do this, right? A robot isn't trying to make meaning of their experience, their consciousness. Is it? Lord help us....


  1. But there are confusions involved with this criterion for realism. It is instructive to observe that if we were to insist on this criterion of accuracy, we would have to discount just about everything that conventionally count as - that we are ordinary justified in calling – an ‘accurate representation.’ That’s a bit like defining ‘shoe’ with reference to something only worn by an obscure clan of Buddhist monks in Tibet, such that nothing we would ordinarily call ‘shoe’ counts as one. In fact, a photograph as well as a painting can count as an accurate representation of something without perfectly resembling what it is of. To say of a beautiful line drawing that it is a remarkable likeness of someone does not mean that the person in reality looks to be made of lines or pencil marks. Just think of occasions when, looking at a beautifully crafted portrait drawing you exclaim, “That looks just like her!” If you define visual accuracy in terms of indistinguishability then such remarks are certainly wrong, but there’s truth to be said in saying that a drawn portrait looks exactly like the person herself. The point is that accuracy or realism is relative to our informational needs or interests."

  2. But is my point about realism and accuracy? I mean, it's related, but I think my question was about the way the thing is generated. The picture of Hawking may or may not be seen as being 'like him', but what I'm perplexed about is why a robot that copied the hand movements of a human is being said to be being creative... I suppose it's the 'why' of a drawing, rather than how it actually turns out?

  3. Opps - yeah I see what you mean - that probably seemed like a bit of a robotic response of me. The reason I linked to the essay was because of the discussion of Van Gogh and the point that "style registers the effect of what is seen on the artist, and not simply what is seen." I thought that chimed well with what you said about "how they experience the world". Robots just mimic - people respond. Though robotic responses become increasingly elaborate and informed by deeper understandings of the human and in the process 'appear' more creative - and in a sense are perhaps.

  4. I like that distinction between mimic and respond. I still can't see how an experience-free machine can be being said to create. I suppose it is 'making' a picture. But there's some huge disconnect here that disturbs me!



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