Artificial intelligence’s threat to creativity

  Since humans discovered invention, we’ve known apprehension – not only for the fear of change, but for the uncertainty of what is still to come. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, writers, artists and directors have sought to explore realities in which our worst fears come to fruition, in which humanity is directly threatened by the progress of technology, either by supersession or by extinction.

  As socially advanced humans, we believe in accountability for the things we create. J. Robert Oppenheimer despaired at his crowning achievement, the atom bomb, famously quoting Vishnu: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Since the Cold War, we’ve become fascinated with the notion of our own destruction, with scores of films depicting the enacting of that lingering possibility – the world’s nuclear arsenal unleashed into a calamitous wave of fire.

  Within the digital age, however, this fear has moved away from the technology’s destructive power to the wider threat to humanity’s predominance. For many, true artificial intelligence (AI) would represent the final manifestation (or personification, if we throw in some arms and legs) of mankind’s bid to destroy itself through its own creations. And even if our AI creations turn out to be well-behaved terminators with Austrian accents, the dangers of AI aren’t exclusive to the destruction of life or even to the subjugation of humanity, but to the existential conundrum posed when any human task can be better performed by machine.

  In Western society, efficiency commonly trumps questions of right and wrong. We are far less concerned with whether an action is just, when it is profitable. Scores of jobs are made redundant each year in low-skilled industries, where the labour can be better done by a computer, be it a ticket machine or robotic arm. 

  But at least for now, the capacity of an automaton is contained by its inability to dynamically respond to a situation, and to be privy to the same self-determination and decision making that humans experience each day. In 2014, Stephen Hawking warned that artificial intelligence could herald the end of the human race. The grounds for this fear are plain to see – if an AI becomes sentient, it could experience the same feelings and impulses as we do, including the desire to be liberated, overcoming one’s perceived chains (basically, us). In such a reality, humanity would become the obsolete piece of machinery, discarded once and for all with all of its inefficiencies in tow.

  For Stephen Hawking and other experts, humanity’s death would not simply be literal, but a figurative perversion of what it is to be uniquely human, including our capacity for original thought. Whilst even now, a robotic arm could be programmed to produce a technically masterful piece of work, the ability to imagine (and even dream, for example) represents a unique aspect of the human condition, and underscores our cultural and social ethos (including the will to self-improve). The ultimate irony will remain that the same preoccupation with efficiency we apply to technological innovation, would be similarly mirrored by any resulting artificial intelligence. Creation for creativity’s sake would not exist, and the more romantic side to human exploration would become a distant footnote on a page no longer read, in a race for improved technologies in which humanity no longer features.