What is creativity?

A professor of cognitive science, Margaret A. Boden, has written extensively about creativity. She is also one of the foremost thinkers in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Her approach to creativity is especially interesting for this research because it combines creativity, psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, computing, and Artificial Intelligence research.

Her outlook on the creative future of A.I. is quite positive, but she asks herself how computers can have anything to do with creativity. The very idea, she writes, seems absurd.

How can computers have anything to do with creativity? The very idea, it may seem, is absurd. The first person to denounce this apparent absurdity was Ada, Lady Lovelace, the friend and collaborator of Charles Babbage. She realized that Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” – in essence, a design for a digital computer – could in principle “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” But she insisted that the creativity involved in any elaborate pieces of music emanating from the Analytical Engine would have to be credited not to the engine, but to the engineer. As she put it, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do [only] whatever we know how to order it to perform.”


If Lady Lovelace’s remark means merely that a computer can do only what its program enables it to do, it is correct-and, from the point of view of theoretical psychology, helpful and important. It means, for instance, that if a program manages to play a Chopin waltz expres-sively, or to improvise modem jazz, then the musical structures and procedures (the generative structures) in that program must be capable of producing those examples of musical expression or improvisation. (It does not follow that human musicians do it in the same way: perhaps there is reason to suspect that they do not. But the program specifies, in detail, one way in which such things can be done. Alter-native theories, involving different musical structures or psychological processes, should ideally be expressed at a comparable level of detail.)

But if Lady Lovelace’s remark is intended as an argument denying any interesting link between computers and creativity , it is too quick and too simple . We must distinguish four different questions, which are often confused with each other. I call them Lovelace questions, because many people would respond to them (with a dismissive “No!” ) by using the argument cited above.

  1. The first Lovelace question is whether computational concepts can help us understand how human creativity is possible.

  2. The second is whether computers (now or in the future ) could ever do things that at least appear to be creative.

  3. The third is whether a computer could ever appear to recognize creativity – in poems written by human poets, for instance, or in its own novel ideas about science or mathematics.

  4. And the fourth is whether computers themselves could ever really be creative (as opposed to merely producing apparently creative performance, whose originality is wholly due to the human programmer).

Our prime interest is in the first Lovelace question, which focuses on the creativity of human beings. The next two Lovelace questions are psychologically interesting insofar as they throw light on the first . For our purposes, the fourth Lovelace question can be ignored . It is not a scientific question , as the others are, but in part a philosophical worry about “meaning” and in part a disguised request for a moral political decision (Boden 1990, ch. 11).((Boden, M. A. (1990). The creative mind: Myths and mechanisms. Grand Bay, NB: Cardinal.))

From Dimensions of Creativity. Margaret A. Boden, editor. © 1994 The MIT Press.((Boden, M. A. (1994). Dimensions of Creativity. The MIT Press.))

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