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Exploring the Boundaries of Human Creativity with AI Technology

The Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition doesn’t normally make national headlines. But when this year’s first prize winner in the digital art category turned out to be a piece created with the assistance of AI technology, it sparked outrage, and the story went viral.

Lost in the ensuing talk of “the death of artistry” was the fact that the artist, Jason Allen, spent roughly 80 hours working on his entry. He used the AI image generator Midjourney to produce over 900 renderings before selecting his three favorites to enter in the contest. He then enhanced the images–including the winning entry, Théâtre D’opéra Spatial–in Photoshop until he was happy with the results. Furthermore, he was completely transparent about his use of AI and didn’t break any of the competition’s rules. (The rules define digital arts as an “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.”)

This episode is a perfect microcosm of what is happening in the larger realm of artificial intelligence. As machines encroach further into creative fields such as music, writing, and design, some are excited for the possibilities,while others question the ethics of the technology. 

How AI Technology Can Assist in the Creative Process

When debating the role of artificial intelligence in the arts, it’s important to remember that AI is not innately creative. It is merely a remarkable imitator. The “creative” outputs from AI are only possible thanks to terabytes of human input.

Meanwhile, according to a survey by Adobe, 74% of creative professionals say they spend more than half their time on tedious, uncreative tasks. As Tim Probert, Art Director at Aardman Nathan Love, put it, “The most tedious parts of my work are all the manual, repetitive tasks, like naming 100 layers in Photoshop, exporting multiple elements to lots of different formats, and managing assets in general.” What artificial intelligence can do is streamline processes, eliminate these mundane tasks, and free up creators to be more creative.

AI is also far superior to humans in its ability to collect and analyze unprecedented amounts of data. It can filter, refine, and combine this data in unexpected ways. This may spark new ideas for artists or give them fast access to the information they need to complete their work.

In other words, AI can be seen as a creative tool: an evolution of the chisel, paintbrush, guitar, and pen artists have been using to express their ideas for ages.

Examples of Human-AI Creative Collaborations

How best to deploy this developing creative tool is still uncertain. 

Researchers at Stanford University, for example, are studying human-AI collaborative writing. They developed a program called CoAuthor, which gives writers the opportunity to use AI-generated suggestions while writing (like the predictive text in your email system). CoAuther then records how often writers accept, reject, or manually edit the computer’s suggestions. 

What they found was that AI increased writer productivity in terms of words produced and time spent writing. It also increased vocabulary diversity. As the experiment’s author, Mina Lee, explained, “The best collaborations between a human and [AI] seem to be when the writer uses his or her own creative sensibilities to evaluate the suggestions and decides what to keep and what to leave out.” 

AI collaboration isn’t just being explored in academics, either. The designer Philip Starck teamed up with furniture manufacturer Kartell and tech firm Autodesk to co-create an AI designed chair. The goal was to use prompts such as “how we can rest our bodies using the least amount of material?” to get the artificial intelligence to design a comfortable, aesthetically pleasing seat using minimal materials. After several iterations and refinements, the results debuted at the 2019 Milan Furniture Fair.

Truly, professionals in every sector–fashion, architecture, entertainment, and more– are experimenting with AI to see how it can enhance and streamline their creative work.

The Potential Benefits of Human-AI Creative Collaboration

Combining human creativity with machine data processing is expanding the boundaries of what is possible.

For generations, sci-fi enthusiasts and linguists alike have dreamed of a Star-Trek-like universal translator which allows for fluent communication between individuals speaking different languages. Humans are now finding creative ways to enhance AI-driven machine translation capabilities to bring us closer to making this dream a reality.

AI is also responsible for unprecedented levels of personalization made possible by interpreting human choices. Spotify’s AI curates personalized music recommendations for you based on observed behavior and crowdsourced playlists. Similarly, Netflix’s AI learns to recommend what you’ll binge-watch next with surprising accuracy. Such personalized experiences would not be possible without the data-mining capabilities of intelligent machines.

Challenges of Human-AI Creative Collaboration

Of course, there are legitimate concerns about the use of artificial intelligence and how it is deployed.

For starters, because AI is trained on human-created data, it can unintentionally learn human biases. For example, Google Translate had to be reprogrammed when it was shown to have a gender bias by assigning male pronouns to words like “doctor” and female pronouns to words like “nurse” when no gender was present in the source text. And the AI image generator DALL-E Mini is known to generate images that contain racial stereotypes because it was trained on unfiltered data from the Internet.

In addition to bias, there are concerns that AI will be used to replace human creatives. Already, Microsoft replaced dozens of journalists with AI for the curation of news stories on its MSN website. And the language generator GPT-3 wrote an article for the Guardian in 2020 (all about why humans should not be afraid of artificial intelligence).

But according to research by the Harvard Business Review, companies that replace humans with AI will only see short-term gains. The greatest returns come when AI is deployed in collaboration with human intelligence. They state, “Humans and AI actively enhance each other’s complementary strengths: the leadership, teamwork, creativity, and social skills of the former, and the speed, scalability, and quantitative capabilities of the latter.”


While artificial intelligence can produce surprisingly human-like works in the areas of art, music, and writing, it is not a replacement for human creativity. In fact, artificial intelligence is a tool that is best used to enhance and scale existing work. It can provide inspiration, data processing, and task management for artists. And when deployed responsibly, artificial intelligence can help creative professionals push the bounds of their abilities, leading to discoveries that would otherwise be beyond human capabilities.

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