Automatic. Can a robot do a creative job?


by Magnus Shaw.


The last time I worked on a major print campaign, we employed a piece of software to automate the production process. It was a clever bit of kit. Once the parameters had been set by a designer (ad sizes, logo clearance, calls to action etc.) a mouse click would set the entire campaign rolling. Once the ads were complete, it would check them and dispatch them to the appropriate publications. In essence, it replaced several production artworkers with an algorithm. It's splendid technology - unless you happen to be a production artworker, I suppose.

So clearly, algorithms (or 'robots' or 'bots') can perform some devilishly tricky tasks without the need for much in the way of human intervention. However, this kind of digital wizardry is very much in its infancy, and that means its use carries substantial risk.

Back in August a financial trading firm, Knight Capital, commissioned the creation of a high-speed algorithm. As you'd imagine, its purpose was to eliminate the need for flesh and blood traders, relying on a vast database of trends, figures and predictions to generate the same or better results. The programme was released and activated one summer morning and took just eight hours to lose Knight Capital $440m. Not only had the 'bot' initiated and failed in scores of very unwise deals, it had brought chaos to Wall Street and beyond.

As I say, the algorithm can be a terribly unreliable servant. And if it can run rogue when briefed with something as mechanical as numbers, what hope does it have with creative activity? Well, at least one enterprise is willing to take that gamble. They're called Nimble and they have developed a piece of software which will write a book based on three keywords. Pulling information from Wikipedia, it is claimed the programme will compile a comprehendible, useable text and then publish it online. The system has yet to be launched commercially, but I'm highly sceptical.

Article marketing has pretty much had its day, but a couple of years ago there was some excitement about the effectiveness of placing promotional articles online. Packed with links to your site or e-store, this would drive traffic and therefore sales. But there was a drawback. Writing articles of 500 words or more is a laborious process - and writing articles worth reading, harder still (I should know). To overcome this, article generators started to spring up. As in the case of Nimble, they were programmes which required a few keywords before they scribbled a suitable, original marketing piece. At least that was the plan. In fact, the results were appalling. Syntax was mangled, grammar abused and linguistic sense a rarity. It was obvious an algorithm couldn't cope with the subtlety and nuance needed to write to an acceptable standard.

The human brain isn't digital (at least, not yet) - and there's something about its organic function that gives rise to creativity. This is not through the amount of information it contains, that's easily replicated by machines. Nor is it the speed - computer programmes have outpaced our calculating skills almost since inception. No, the brain's creative capacity lies in its ability to free associate. Our minds have a marvellous capacity to link seemingly disparate concepts - smells, words, colours, tastes, characters, ideas - and reform them into works which will entertain, amuse, thrill, persuade or move other homo sapiens. These recipes require no logic, approval or balance, just something we inadequately call 'imagination'. What's more, we have a unique instinct for appreciating others' reactions to our work, because we share their make-up, we have a species in common. An algorithm will never enjoy that advantage.

That's not to say there will never be great advances in 'creativity' software. Since it was predicted that trains travelling over 30mph would suffocate passengers, we've learned to take dismissals of technological probabilities with a large pinch of salt. I'm absolutely certain the facilities we view as cutting-edge will appear utterly lame to our grandchildren. Nevertheless, while robots which vacuum our carpets, mow our lawns, cook our meals and set our press ads are with us now, it will be many a decade before a robot can create art, execute design and write copy with a hand indistinguishable from a human's.

Whatever the future brings, I won't expect the addition of a 'create' button to my keyboard any time soon.

Magnus Shaw is a human copywriter, blogger and consultant.


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