AI Artisans

Is machine creativity about to transform the way we think about the crafted and the mass produced?

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This week, a short note on AI and creativity.

This is founded in a thought I shared with the audience at last week’s NEXT Conference in Hamburg. Now, I want to share a slightly more developed version with you.


Last week we heard from NWSH reader Michael Bhaskar on the Great Acceleration, and on how AI is at the tip of that spear.

Signs of this shift continue to proliferate. This week saw the $2.9 billion IPO of UK-based pharma company Exscientia; the company recently sent the world’s first medicine developed entirely by AI – a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder – into clinical trials.

AI is set to revolutionise healthcare, industrial design, transport, and much beyond. But something else is happening, too. That is, the emergence – and acceptance – of AI as an authentically creative force. Again, signs abound. This week also saw news that researchers at Rutgers University used an AI to complete Beethoven’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. The work will have its live premiere next week in Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace.

The idea that AI is set to transform the arts is not new. And in a past NWSH I explored the principle that underlies this Beethoven experiment. I wrote about a machine learning project to reincarnate the voice of the late South Korean folk singer Kim Kwang-seok, and pondered on how AI may in future offer artists a strange new form of ghostly afterlife, which sees original works in their unique style continue to be produced long after their death.

But there’s another implication, here, that has been less thoroughly examined. One that has the potential to be just as transformative as anything AI might do for music, poetry, or painting.

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Inside consumer societies, we tend to divide the products we buy into two types. This division is so longstanding that we rarely think about it. I’m talking about the division between mass-produced and artisanal, or crafted, objects.

The division structures important attitudes and behaviours inside consumerism. Mass-produced objects are ubiquitous, cheap, and often throwaway. Artisanal objects are expensive, treasured, and imbued with a special status because we believe they embody something special about us: our creativity.

But what if AI is about to explode that division? The idea is best explained via an example.

Brauer AI is a new craft beer company created via a partnership between AI researchers at the University of Lucerne and a German microbrewery called MN Brew. They recently released their first beer, Deeper, which was created using machine learning.

We’ve lived through a craft beer renaissance across the last 15 years. It saw a host of small, artisanal beers rose up to take on their mass-produced counterparts. In this way, the craft brewer has become emblematic of the 21st-century artisan; proof that creativity, obsession, and the human touch can still matter inside advanced consumerism.

Compare the sweat and passion of the human craft brewer with the method via which Brauer AI created Deeper. Their machine learning agent crunched over 60,000 beer recipes, and built a vast map linking optimal ingredients, in order to arrive at Deeper’s formula. Of course, the AI has no way to evaluate its recipe; it can’t taste the beer it creates. It’s simply relying on the information it can find on what we humans tend to like in a beer, and how we’ve made beers in the past. But that process makes Deeper a distillation (pun intended) of a vast amount of human knowledge when it comes to the ancient art of brewing. Far more than any individual, or even a large team, can claim.

In some powerful sense, then, is Deeper a more crafted, artisanal, and creative beer than any created by a human brewer?

I’m not obsessed with beer. My interest in Deeper derives from the idea that the question above is just one version of a broader question set to shake up the consumer society. Namely, is the traditional link between individual creators and artisanal, crafted products about to be broken? Will we come to think that the most creatively interesting products – from drinks, to designer furniture, to clothes, to cars – are designed by machines, which are able to process huge stores of knowledge and output products that are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before?

In short, are AIs the new artisans?

These are contentious issues, and there will be no agreement on the answers. But the question is set to assert itself. And it has the potential to transform the way we think about a fundamental division – mass produced vs artisanal – inside the consumer society.

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If I had to bet, I think we will see a shift in attitudes, towards the acceptance that AI-designed products are embodiments of a particular kind of creative power. That AIs can, in some weird sense, be a new form of artisan. And the products they design are special in a way analogous to the way we believe traditional artisanal products to be special.

Many people will instinctively recoil at the idea that AIs might, in this way and others, usurp human creativity. More likely is that humans and AIs will enter into a fruitful symbiosis, in which the new ideas generated by machines inspire us to ever-greater creative leaps.

AI is set to change so much. But its primary impact may yet be the way it pushes us to new creative heights. If that is to happen, though, we must first come to accept that machine intelligence is capable of a strange new form of creativity. That we are witnessing the emergence of a new, non-human way of seeing the world.


Big Bang

Thanks for reading this week.

At the heart of this newsletter lies the idea that our shared future takes shape when new technologies collide with age-old human needs and values. The emerging story around AI and creativity is a perfect example.

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I’ll be back as usual on Wednesday; until then, be well.

David.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.