Can Only Humans Be Creative?

I stole this title from a question asked at the World Government Summit in India this week. The study of human creativity and evolution has become a popular area of research and debate, particularly in regard to the educational needs of the future generation. In his 2017 book The Creative Spark, Agustin Fuentes writes that:

Creativity is at the very root of how we evolved and why we are the way we are. It’s our ability to move back and forth between the realms of “what is” and “what could be” that has enabled us to reach beyond being a successful species to become an exceptional one

It is Fuentes’ view that evolution can only occur as a result of creativity, which is unique to the human race. It is creativity which has moulded our present-day world, and it is creativity which will develop future society. But, in a world where the tremendous progress of Artificial Intelligence has seen it used successfully to write pop ballads, mimic the styles of great painters and inform creative decisions in filmmaking, can we truly still argue that humans alone have the capacity for creativity?

My answer would be a guarded yes, but only in terms of the entire definition of creativity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, creativity is ‘the use of imagination or original ideas to create something’. I am certain that works of art, whether visual, musical, performance-based or written, can only occur from human intervention due to the level of creativity involved.

While technology is constantly evolving, I think it will be a long time yet before we see robots performing Swan Lake or constructing great literary works of fiction. Traditionally, humans’ capacity for creativity has set them apart. However, certain events straddle a line and waver my resolve.

The Robots are Coming

Boston Dynamics is a US-based robotics company, famous for its acquisition and subsequent resale by Google. They have a range of robots that mimic bipeds and quadrupeds. The quadrupeds obviously walk on four feet and carry loads, while the bipeds are humanoid-ish and have sophisticated hand like grippers. According to a recent news story, a biped robot working with a quadruped was able to understand the quadruped couldn’t pass through a closed door, so opened the door for it. Does this count as creative problem-solving? Or is it merely pre-programmed behaviour? I would argue pre-programmed behaviour, but this is a grey area and many supporters of AI would disagree

Boston Dynamics

If creativity is a uniquely human capability then what does this mean for our future? AI is moving at such a rate that autonomous vehicles will likely soon populate the roads and shopping will become a totally online process (with autonomous deliveries). As a result of such advances in technology and culture, employment, as we know it, seems set to change.

No longer will we have a need for supermarket cashiers, drivers, bank workers, shopkeepers….indeed, the growing presence of self-service ticket machines, checkouts and banking points in the high street indicates that this process is already beginning.

This doesn’t mean mass unemployment in the future for humans, however, but rather a specialisation of employment; given humans’ distinct aptitude for creativity, it seems likely that the majority of future employment opportunities will appear in this sector.

The Problem with STEM

For the past decade, the UK has steadfastly pushed students towards STEM, with the government most recently insisting that all students must learn both block and syntax-based coding. Every education vendor has a range of STEM products available for sale, and schools work hard to shoe-horn (often hastily-prepared or externally purchased) STEM schemes into their curriculum through lessons and extra-curricular activities.

Despite the focus on STEM, it is not on its own an answer; it is barely even a band-aid. At best, it is a solution for today, but hardly a solution for tomorrow. We are lacking scientists and engineers and coders today, but by the time our primary school-aged students have left education many STEM-related jobs will have already been filled, either by the globally connected workforce or, in some part, by intelligent machines.

I have to say as well that much of the material promoted to help fill this gap in STEM, is so dry that it would catch fire on a warm day.

Aphids vs Zombies

I had occasion to help teach coding in a school in one of the New Towns, and the teacher had picked what she thought was the best of the GCSE programming projects: 'Model the Life Cycle of a Greenfly'. The students didn’t even know what a greenfly was!

There was a severe lack of engagement, and, following a brief discussion with the headmistress, we temporarily changed the project to 'The Life Cycle of a Zombie'. We kept the same number of steps, the same activities, and the coding was identical – all that was changed were the images and text boxes. The result? Instant engagement. Once the students had created their ‘zombie’ programs, it was a simple matter to get them to clone the process to apply to the greenfly life cycle. Incidentally, there was an 87% pass rate.

There were two key reasons for the new level of engagement. Firstly, the subject matter was something they had an interest in, and perhaps more importantly, was the creativity factor. The children got to research images of zombies, draw their own, and generally take complete ownership of their projects.

Project Based Learning

This brings us back to our title question, ‘can only humans be creative?’ If this is indeed what separates us from robots and AIs, then this is something we should be endeavouring to promote in schools. It isn’t a difficult thing to do, but it does require a different approach to curriculum planning. One of the easiest ways is to utilise project-based learning (PBL) activities.

EdTech in the Classroom

I would hasten to say here that this is not a National Curriculum vs PBL argument- rather, I believe the two can comfortably co-exist if the project developer is familiar with the curriculum and can map projects to expected learning. In fact, PBL tends to be cross-curricular by nature.

As an example, we have a weather station project that covers science via meteorology, technology via the creation of a website and the sending of data over the internet, engineering via the design and placement of a sensor array, and mathematics through the use of data logging and the calculation of rainfall totals and average temperatures. It even encompasses art as students can take and post images to show the daily weather.

We also find that through the project, students learn to research connected, collaborative weather networks such as The Weather Underground, and learn to collaborate with their project teams to create and enhance their weather station website.

21st-Century Learning Goals

The ability to research, collaborate and publish are semi-soft skills that, whilst not required as part of the National Curriculum, are invaluable in the workplace.

Indeed, these skills form part of the UNESCO 21st-Century Learning Goals, and when they are combined with the somewhat misnamed ‘Computational Thinking’, provide a solid foundation for a future workforce. I have said before that even today there is very little use in everyday life for syntax-based programming, and that we would be better to teach a more detailed level of task deconstruction.

The smartphone in your pocket is millions of times more powerful than all the computers used for the ’69 moon landing combined.

The access to easy-to-use, voice-controlled AI-based interfaces such as Alexa, Cortana and Siri means we are starting to communicate with technology in ways that are infinitely faster and more convenient. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time I entered an appointment in my calendar, preferring instead just to tell Cortana to ‘remind me to call Claire at 4pm’.

To do these things, I need to know what my AI knows about time, location, contacts and tasks. I don’t need to know how to create a complex reminder anymore; I just ask the AI and it is done. Macros for spreadsheets and word processors will become the first intelligent interfaces with users being able to conduct formatting or data sorting just by saying what they want. It is a short step from here to being able to program from a flow chart, just by telling the system what you want it to do- although this, of course, assumes that in 10 years’ time we will still see our data represented on a screen!

The ability to formulate data queries will be more useful than knowing how to write them. The ability to deliver a question with as much or as little detail as necessary will be a sought-after skill.

Embracing Creativity

So, moving forward to a future where employment and the workforce will be a very different place, STE(A)M should be warmly embraced. However, much like history tells us how we got to be where we are today, STEM will give us an understanding of the world around us and how we interact with it. The (A) Art will be what defines us, what allows to harness the machines and the AIs to solve our problems and issues. It will be humans that decide what the ‘big picture’ is that the AIs work on, and the humans that write the next part of the script that robots perform, but only if we teach our students to develop that uniquely human trait – CREATIVITY!