Is AI more creative than the human brain? I doubt it – and I definitely want humans to stay in charge

Prove you’re not a robot. It’s (fairly) easy if you try. You could scroll down or click the little x in the corner of the screen to get rid of me. If you are reading the print edition you could just turn the page.

One of the indignities of the digital age is being asked, constantly, to confirm we are who we say we are, that we are indeed a human being. Something feels slightly amiss when the (non-human) technology demands that we convince it that we are not the same as them. Big (and sometimes overexcited) claims are being made for artificial intelligence, the most recent being the claim from Wharton business school in Philadelphia that ChatGPT is more creative than human beings (well, more creative than MBA students, anyway).

Students and AI were challenged to come up with ideas for new, cheap products. When potential customers were surveyed online, the products suggested by AI seemed to be more popular. They had certainly been dreamed up much more quickly and in larger numbers than the ideas put forward by mere humans.

Digging into the research, however, caused this particular human being to experience a jolt of scepticism. In a footnote, the researchers concede there are concerns that AI is being used to provide answers for these online consumer panels. Are robots passing judgment on robots? “We believe that we were indeed surveying humans,” the researchers say.

When I looked at the list of “new” products – “multifunctional desk organiser”, “noise-cancelling headphones”, “compact printer” – they did not exactly scream “innovation”. Indeed, the researchers admit the ideas produced by the students scored higher for novelty. But they dismissed the idea that novelty was necessarily an advantage in new product creation.

That may be so. How many new stories did Shakespeare come up with? The Renaissance was in part a conscious attempt to imitate and recreate the art of antiquity. Originality is a slippery concept, as any good intellectual property lawyer will tell you – for a fee.

The Wharton researchers try not to over-claim. AI could become “a creative co-pilot”, they say. “Together, you can become a more innovative team.” The tech writer Kate Bevan agrees with that last point. You can use AI as “a way to express creativity, but AI itself is not creative”, she told me.

The question has been a live one in Hollywood, where the 148-day strike by the Writers Guild of America forced studio bosses to acknowledge the unique contribution that only human beings can make.

The union won concessions. Writers will benefit if their productivity is enhanced by AI. But AI will not be used to replace them. As Adam Seth Litwin, associate professor of industrial and labour relations at Cornell University, explained in a piece for the New York Times,
the studios can use AI “to generate a first draft, but the writers to whom they deliver it get the credit”. The human hand, and brain, matter.

Last summer, I visited Rome and spent a wonderful few hours in the Vatican galleries, ending up with a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel. I gawped up at the ceiling, as so many millions of people have done in the five centuries since the decorator finished his work there in 1512. The “decorator” Michelangelo.

In his poem Long-legged Fly, Yeats imagines the artist working away up there on the scaffolding: “With no more sound than the mice make / His hand moves to and fro.”

We stared up at the famous image of a languorous Adam reaching out his forefinger to that belonging to benign, bearded God. And, of course, I bought the print of that detail on our way out, which is now on my kitchen wall at home. I look at it every day.

You don’t have to believe in a divine spark. But when Adam reaches out like that he is, I think, doing what all of us try to do, one way or another, every day. He is trying to be creative, to be human. He is seeking inspiration. He is not a robot. He is something much better than that: infinite, full of potential, unpredictable.

The new technology is great: exciting, powerful, also full of potential. But I think we living things ought to remain in charge. On behalf of humanity, I would respectfully ask some of the more overexcited tech bros: prove you’re not the idiot.

Leave a Comment