Making the maker

9 March 2015
9 Mar 2015
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

This blog post comes to you from a human being. You can rest assured that there is a person sitting in front of a laptop, drinking coffee, typing out these words with flesh-and-blood fingers. But that’s not necessarily true for some articles online. And in a few years, many pieces of written news may be curated, produced, and delivered to your eyeballs without a single human being involved in the process. Since mid-2014, Associated Press has been publishing some of its business reports using a combination of different software tools, sifting through announcements and earnings reports from top companies and crunching out around 3,000 such articles every three months. A few days ago, the group also announced their plans to expand their collegiate sports coverage with similar ‘robot journalists’. Similar programs already deliver daily news to my phone from Yahoo, and compared to writing articles, curating items of interest with ads on Facebook is a breeze for computers.

Fortunately, the ‘hiring’ of these robot journalists didn’t accompany loss of jobs of the original writers; AP stated that the computers will merely augment the team by standing in for spots that human journalists could not originally fill. But this gives us a glimpse into the fact that computers can perform beyond the low-grade factory work we’re so used to them doing. Not only do they follow directions better than any human being possibly can, they now also write articles that aren’t all that bad to read. Their writing is no Moby Dick, but for reporting news, they fit the role perfectly with their quick speed and perpetual readiness. It doesn’t stop there, though. Want a nice, custom-made orchestral piece composed for your birthday, but too lazy to hire anyone good? Emily Howell may be of help. Emily Howell is one of a number of computer programs that can write music practically indistinguishable from those by human composers. This isn’t as hard as it may appear (though producing any computer that can create art is still incredibly difficult), because music is a collection of patterns pleasant to our ears. Patterns are numbers. numbers are mathematics, and math is one field in which computers will always outperform humans. And if you’re lost about how to make a robot that will do a certain job, there are also robots that can watch you performa task a few times, and master it in a matter of hours. one particular computer has learned how to cook actual food by watching YouTube cooking videos. In other words, computers today are more human and intelligent than we give them credit for.

This raises the question, as robots have in the past, “Will robots take over human jobs and leave us unemployed?” We’ve already been through a big period of robots taking over human jobs, specifically in factories and manufacturing work requiring precision that human hands cannot match. They cost a fraction of human workers, and they’re perfect every time. Ergo, robot workers replaced human factory workers. But when that happened, people just moved to more sophisticated professions, working in offices, going to meetings, and producing works of art. The last one is interesting, because while robots can do a lot of office work and manage communication even now, computers are still far from producing something that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art or winning a Grammy. But then again, dial the clock back barely five years, and Siri was nothing short of computer magic to most of us. So I wouldn’t be surprised if computers produced works of art that rivaled human artists before the century is out. And when that happens, computers will be advanced enough to fill so many of the jobs needed that people won’t be able to adapt as quickly.

But in spite of computers’ ever-advancing level of sophistication, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of jobs unique to people. It’s not because I don’t believe computers can be as creative – that’s already out of the question. But I think art and creativity are not necessarily one and the same. Being a beloved artist requires creativity and technical skill, yes. But just because a work of art is beautiful does not necessary mean that it will be loved. In other words, I think great works of art, from music to acting, requires more than just throwing creativity and originality into a digital melting pot and ending up with something attractive. I think works of art that we create, as opposed to those created without human intervention, are different because of our ability to inject emotion into our art, and to recognize that emotion embedded within our culture when we look at or listen to works of art. A painting coming from a computer’s hard drive and one coming from an artist’s workshop might as well look identical; the one created with a human hand will have greater value because there was another human being behind it, who has experienced life in ways that a computer has not. We may not be able to immediately recognize a computer-generated artwork from a human-produced one, but the moment we stop associating art with its creator and the common, human experience that we share with the artist, the artwork stops having so much value, because all art is some representation of a human experience, be it emotion or observations.

There will be a time when robots are sufficiently advanced to take on all mundane tasks that need to be done in the world. But I think as this happens, people will be less involved in producing things and more involved in sharing and consuming them. And this requires that there be something for us to consume. Of course, that could mean anything from short stories written by a supercomputer at Harvard to today’s news summary curated by your smartphone. But when it comes to enjoying something of the greatest value – music, plays, novels, and movies – I think we will always prefer ones with a human touch. Not because computers are any worse, but because we’d much rather empathize and share experiences with a human being than attempt to imagine that your phone can feel the sadness of grief that it talks about in a song it’s written. Making computers make art is possible, but giving them the same values as art by people? Not so much. Making the maker may not be too difficult, but being one is, and that’s the value in any work of creativity.

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