Why do we value creativity? Of course, we often don’t. Creativity may go unrecognized, or it may be perceived as a nuisance, a weird thing, a threat to authority and convention. But when we do value creativity, that’s not only because it delivers solutions to problems and because it supplies art, music, and prose we enjoy consuming. We value creativity because the practice of it, occasionally effortless, is often hard in a way that draws upon all our strengths and so helps us cultivate and show off the virtues we hold most dear.

To be creative you must have the virtue of open-mindedness, being flexible enough to overcome stereotypes and old habits so as to discover new ways of combining familiar materials, new ways of conceiving perennial challenges, new ways of imagining what’s achievable and how. You must have the virtue of energy, excitement, and passion, so that you would sketch out a dozen, a hundred, a thousand variations on an idea. You must have the virtue of persistence, so that you would sort through the options, trying things out, experimenting, tinkering, testing, all while most initiatives fail. You must have the virtue of patience and care, so that you would cultivate possibilities like seeds that don’t immediately sprout. You must have the virtue of independence, the willingness to pursue your curiosity in the absence of external validation. You must have the virtue of self-knowledge, understanding enough about your own perceptions, your own strengths and weaknesses, your own creative process to steer the ship. You must have the virtue of empathy, understanding other people and being able to imagine how they might experience what you produce. You must have the virtue of craftsmanship, knowing your materials well enough to use them to best effect. You must have the virtue of conviction, possessing something inside you that you yearn to express. You must have the virtue of bravery, a willingness to risk rejection or even ridicule. And you might have the virtue of altruism, which is to say that you’re willing to bear a great cost to create something that others might enjoy, independent of its benefit to you.

Now, a creative person might not manifest the full gamut of these virtues and such a person might be thoroughly nasty in other ways. But it is safe to say that great creative results are not achieved through rigid thinking, laziness, impatience, sheepishness, ignorance, and apathy. The opposite is true. We celebrate creativity because it is a proxy for everything that is good about ourselves. 

But what if it turned out that a nonhuman process driven by data, statistics, and computing power – let’s call it “AI” – could generate humanlike creative results? And what if those results were good enough that we humans could no longer tell the difference? What if such a computational system, which at first appeared to be merely regurgitating human inputs, were to advance beyond pastiche? What if it were to begin generating non-derivative outputs that we might accept as new, “truly original,” even breathtaking in a way that’s competitive with our own best efforts?

If that happened, we’d have a good reason to feel confused and upset. Perhaps insulted. Because we know that a nonhuman process, spitting out art in an instant, is not and cannot be manifesting the virtues we associate with creativity. It did not struggle, because it cannot experience pain. It was not brave, because it was not afraid. It did not have patience, because it cannot experience the passing of time. It did not strive, because it cannot experience hope. It did not take risks, because it cannot experience fear. It did not sacrifice, because it cannot experience love. It cannot experience. And yet it was able to produce the kind of artifact that we have so far seen as evidence of experience.

If it turned out that creativity could be divorced from human virtue – existing as a soulless computational phenomenon – but still appearing competitive with embodied, human creativity, what would happen next? If it turned out that all the qualities we consider to be the most admirable about ourselves are actually not necessary for achieving the best creative results, we might question the worth of those qualities themselves. Virtue itself might be devalued in our eyes. Yes, open-mindedness, persistence, hard work, passion, and love would still be good – we’d agree – but if they weren’t actually essential for creating great prose or music or visual art or for solving novel technical challenges and formulating powerful scientific concepts that we accept as beautiful, then perhaps they’d seem just a little less important than we thought they were. 

Creative products too would lose worth, if we could no longer treat them as windows to an artist’s “soul,” but if we now had to contend with the possibility of their being simulated windows to a simulated soul. If we could no longer be sure we were seeing human emotion expressed, human virtue manifested in these outputs, then the remnants of our fractured aesthetic experience might tend toward uncertainty, doubt, and suspicion.

In times before AI, when we looked at a work of art that we happened to love, we might have appreciated its inherent beauty, and then we might have reflected upon our admiration for the artist. But even when we didn’t like the work and we didn’t know anything about the artist, we still knew that whoever made it had needed to reach inside themselves, at least to try. What we saw, good or bad, was the outcome of that reach. Looking at a disappointing work, we still might have thought “Aren’t people fantastic?” The things they do. The ideas they dream up. The dedication they show. The urge they feel to share, to express. Art is a way we feel connected to each other and show our love for one another. Whether any particular “gift” pleases our taste or not, it’s the gesture that counts.

AI creativity threatens to disrupt that connection. If we first have to ask – because we can’t actually tell – whether the work was created by a human or a machine, we might still enjoy the work for its specific content, but we would have lost the opportunity for awe at the human virtues that its creation must have required, because perhaps none of those virtues were required after all.

There are many bad things that could happen here. A good thing that could happen is that the insult of AI creativity beckons us to refocus on the reasons why we admire creativity in the first place, and that it pushes us to do more to recognize and appreciate those virtues wherever they are manifested by the beings who can do that – our fellow humans. ■

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