Whitehurst: Is AI Creative?

Dane Whitehurst is Creative Director at Burgopak Ltd, a company focused on using packaging design and cardboard engineering to build education, delight and sustainability into the unboxing of products.  As a packaging designer, Dane has worked with many of the world’s biggest brands including Google, Samsung, Unilever, Sony, Chase, HSBC, Bayer and more and has helped some of the most innovative start-ups launch new and ground-breaking products. In recent years he has been heavily focused on the environment and leads a task force within the organization to bring sustainability to the forefront of innovative packaging design.


Something Can Be Clever Without Being Creative


Artificial Intelligence (AI) is certainly the thing of the moment. With companies jumping at the chance to make their products feel more cutting-edge, it seems impossible to get anything now without some form of supposedly embedded AI. On the flip-side, there is certainly a healthy representation of concern around the proliferation of AI and particularly around its containment. But nevertheless, ‘Artificial’ is a word we seem relatively comfortable to prefix to the concept of intelligence. Can the same be said for other areas it appears to be contributing to – ‘Artificial Music’, ‘Artificial Art’, ‘Artificial Creativity’?

It has certainly gotten areas of the creative community more than a little worried. Perhaps the most notable example being the recent writers’ strikes in Hollywood. And anyone that has used programs like Chat GPT will attest that it is certainly a powerful tool that brings new powers to those not naturally gifted in the art of prose. But beyond being a bit of a laugh, can it genuinely have a place in the future of creativity?

To unpack that question, we need to agree on a definition of what exactly creativity is:

• Oxford Reference:  ‘The production of ideas and objects that are both novel or original’ 

• Cambridge Dictionary:  ‘The ability to produce or use original or unusual ideas’ 

• Sir Ken Robinson:  ‘The process of having original ideas that have value’ 

So, consensus would suggest it is a process by which ideas are created that are original and have value.

AI generates things, so there must be a process. It reshapes existing content (some might say, ideas) to form new (original?) content, some of which might be considered valuable.  So within the scope of current definitions, AI might very well be considered something close to ‘creative’.

However, the problem with current definitions is that the concept of creativity is not just about external factors like the work or even the process. It is also inextricably linked to the ‘creative’, the person responsible for the work.

Something can be clever, beautiful even, without being creative. Consider nature for example. But, be it the formation of words into narrative, or colours into image, ideas and therefore creativity relies on individual, personal interpretation and agency  –  internal factors.

It is often difficult to truly appreciate the work until we understand the person behind it, or the reasons for which it was conceived. The hidden meanings, the feelings that were projected, the story of the artist’s life that led them to that moment. The humanity of it all.

No matter how intelligent, AI will never live a life, have feelings, successes, tragedies, relationships and these are the things that, albeit hidden beneath the surface, underpin the very concept of creativity.

It is often the story the work tells that resonates most, not necessarily the work itself. Creativity relies on context to create meaning and meaning is what allows us to connect with a piece and beyond that, the artist. I wonder if anyone will ever have the same desire to resonate so deeply with a computer? Will a bot ever have as many followers as Taylor Swift? Because following someone is a manifestation of the desire to connect with them as a person, to know more about them, understand their lives and ultimately where their work comes from. It has very little to do with the work itself.

The other issue is the validity of what the work represents and ultimately, where the content is derived. This we must link back to its ‘value’. I must admit that I’m not smart enough to understand how these very clever AI algorithms work, but unless data sources are somehow regulated and filtered, then output seems to be defined by the sheer weight of content pointing in the same direction. The popular view.

To share a personal example of why this may not be such a great thing; a friend who teaches art at secondary school, asked, along with his students, a certain AI image generator to create an image of a superhero. All sat eagerly huddled around the screen while the artificial cogs turned. Sure enough, within a matter of seconds, out popped the iconic vision of a superhero. Genius! Except they were somewhat shocked to find that it wasn’t until the fifteenth iteration that it finally generated a female example.

Firstly, this example suggests that females are significantly under-represented in the world of super heroes. But the bigger problem is that AI doesn’t have the ability to be subjective. The humanity to say, ‘hey, that’s not fair’. It simply reinforces the prevailing view or to put it another way, it stereotypes. And repeating the process over and over creates more content pointing in the same direction, thus compounding the issue. Could this be considered a form of discrimination? And does that negate its value?

It’s true of course that it is possible to add more descriptive adjectives to tailor the output. But will everyone do this, will children? And will education need to adapt to fill the gap?

Perhaps that really is the crux of the issue – in the way AI is used or controlled. If it is wielded as a tool and there is an art in shaping and manipulating the output, then it may very well have an important role to play in the future of creativity. It might even be considered a new medium, one capable of democratising the pursuit of creativity.  I would argue however, that the more the human element is reduced from the process, the less ‘creative’ the output becomes.

Therefore, I would like to propose a new definition of creativity, one that takes into account the fact that for the first time in our history something other than a human is capable of creating forms of art:

Creativity is the distillation and shaping of personal experience and learnings into new and original ideas.

Because if humanity is removed entirely from the equation then the process becomes ‘clever’ not ‘creative’. But if we get to that point, then I suspect we may all have bigger problems to write about.