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Sunday, 11 November, 2001, 09:18 GMT
Can computers be creative?
Painting by Aaron, BBC
The paintings are pleasing to the eye
By BBC Click Online's Ben Silburn in California

Creativity is one of those things which makes humans so special.

But could there ever be a day when computers are composers, theoretical physicists, or artists?

There are already a number of projects in artificial intelligence that try to recreate creativity in computers. Harold Cohen has spent his whole career designing a program called Aaron which creates original works of art.

"We've barely scratched the surface of machine intelligence," says Mr Cohen.

Pleasing artworks

He has given the program a knowledge base full of information about how people look and how their bodies move. The program also understands composition, brushwork and how to paint.

Aaron plays with these thousands of interrelated variables to create works of art.

Harold Cohen, BBC
Cohen: Is he the real artist?
Some say this amounts to creativity. Aaron's paintings look like art. They're pleasing to the eye, drawing emotional response. Some pictures have even been displayed in art galleries.

"Aaron is creative with a small "c" but not creative with a big "c". You can do creative basket-weaving or creative candle-making," says Mr Cohen.

"The problem is we don't know if there is a continuum between creative with a small "c" and creative with a big "c"

"If there is a continuum, then I think Aaron is a good deal more creative than creative basket-weaving," he argues.

"If, as I suspect, they are two different things, then Aaron is not creative and I don't yet know of any program that can be."

Who is the artist?

Mr Cohen has given Aaron the rules, albeit very sophisticated rules with some randomised parameters.

Drawing by Aaron, BBC
But is it art?
Is Aaron any more creative than other random generation programmes?

"I wrote the program; the program does the pictures," says Mr Cohen.

"Am I the artist or is Aaron the artist? I don't know how to answer that."

Perhaps it's fairer to say that Harold Cohen is the artist. But the art here is the program, not the end product.

Model of an artist

Harold has created a model of the artist at work providing an insight into the workings of an artist by formalising the creative process.

Working in a similar field, Viennese researchers are teaching a computer to play like a human pianist, finding patterns in the performance of real pianists.

In other words, they are reducing a creative event to a sequence of rules.

It is getting harder all the time to tell where man stops and machine starts.

So the question is whether we assume that there will forever be a core of human attributes, like creativity, which will never be taken on board by machine.


Click Online is on BBC World on Thursday at 2230, Friday at 1030, 1430 and 2030, Saturday at 0730, 1430 and 1930 and on Sunday at 1030. All times GMT.

See also:

01 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Clicking for consciousness
10 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Timeline: Real robots
15 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Chatty computer wins again
12 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Computer babbles like a baby
21 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Predicting AI's future
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