What is Creativity and Can AI Automate it?

Definitions, Components, and What the Evidence Says
Brett Friedman

It's 2020. While robots have not infiltrated our ranks (yet), there remains a growing fear that AI will replace humans in the workforce, limit freedoms, crush the economy, and maximize the inequality gap. If there's a minimum threshold for that fear, it lies somewhere between fully functional humanoid robots and AI creativity. Basic AI emotions already exist, albeit at malformed scale, but the real fear is in AI creative. Once computers make art, humanity is stripped of its value. When calculators create, humans dissipate.
Or so the argument goes.
As a team that's part of the creative tech revolution, we thought it prudent to clear away misguided thoughts on automation in creative work. To understand why you should fear computer creativity less than you fear cute, cuddly kittens, there are a few things you need to know.

Table of Contents
  1. Definitions of Creativity
  2. Core Components of Creativity
  3. Science of Creativity
  4. AI Capacity for Creativity
  5. AI-Enabled Creativity

Definitions of Creativity

Creativity goes by many names, but few have winnowed the concept into something tangible. In order to combat beliefs of human inferiority to AI in creativity, the concept must be well defined.
To get an accurate definition, we asked 38 creatives from marketing, music, corporate, academia, and all other manners of life for their definition.

"Creativity is defined as the use of imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work." - Lori Bloom, Founder, Blooming Colors Arts
"'Creativity is.' As in it exists: Everywhere, in all of us and it doesn't matter how you see yourself or whether you consider profession creative... you are creative when you make a choice" - Will Hatton, CEO, The Broke Backpacker
'Deliberate creativity is thinking outside the box. Adaptive creativity is thinking inside the box. It's re-purposing what you have for a new goal due to constraints. Deliberate creativity is a more process oriented problem-solving, such as brainstorming, and often takes the form of artistic expression' - Beth Miller, Executive Director, Creative Education Foundation
"Creativity is flexibility and fluency of thought." - Beth Slazak, Manager of Education and Events, Creative Education Foundation
"Making new connections, making sense of new objects, making new objects- this is the purpose of humanity. This is creativity.' - Kelly Kent, Neuroscience Consultant, The Right Brain Project
'Creativity is like a fairy: both beneficial and problematic. It intertwines with mental health disorders, but generally creativity is a glitch when your brain doesn't do the expected thing. Instead of 1, 2, 3, it goes 1, x, butterfly.' - Victoria Moreno-Jackson, Founder & Maker-in-Chief, Subversive Textiles
'Creativity is a means by which we use our unique combination of existence, our thoughts, our questions, our preferences, and bring them out in a unique manner, bringing something different, a new dimension, to a difficult problem.' - Robert Belle, Managing Director, Smip Consultancy, Author, Blow the Lid Off: Reclaim Your Stolen Creativity, Increase Your Income, and Let Your Light Shine
"Creativity is the process of coming up with new perspectives and ways of looking at things" - Nushy Rose, Managing Editor, Parlia
"Creativity is using your mind (both or either sides of your brain) to solve a problem or issue in a unique manner." - Sandra Holtzman, Founder, Marketing Cures
"Creativity is every personal decision you make to produce or ameliorate a product or service." - Sabine Saadeh, Author, Trading Love
'Creativity is more than creative product, creative act, creator, it's starting a project, continuing in face of resistance, and finishing the project to share' - Adam Cole, Founder, Adam Cole Works, LLC
"Creativity is how we translate ideas into reality." - Willie Greer, Founder, The Product Analyst
"Creativity is the ability to draw from yours and others inspiration, and by doing that, creating something truly inspirational and awesome." - Andreas Johansson, Founder, Andreas Johansson UX
"Creativity is when a task is handled in a new and unique way, being able to add your own flair to a project and encouraging others to do the same." - Bridgette Norris, Marketing Director, Eco Secretariat
"Creativity is anything that is produced outside of the norm." - Michael Nemeroff, Founder, Rush Order Tees
"Creativity is the expression of connection between unrelated ideas that is unexpected, out of the box, and innovative." - Rhianna Basore, Founder, Self Trust Fund
"Creativity is thinking of something that was never thought of before." - Lisa Courtney, Founder, Good Gangsta, The Brand Goddess, & Lisa Courtney Fine Art
"Creativity is building something. It can be anything — a website, a documentary, a desk. Something that is your own. You can look at it and say, I built this, or I helped build this." - Megan Wenzl, Content Marketing Strategist, Clique Studios
"Creativity is a channeling of the inner spirit one has - a translation of the energy from the inner world into a tangible form here in the outer world." - Carrie Aulenbacher, Author, Early Bird Cafe, The Place Between Places
"Creativity at its core is an expression of who you are on the inside and has a direct correlation to what you're passionate about." - David Sandy
"Creativity is using any of the human senses to express something in a way that will inspire thought or feeling in one’s self or another person." - Singer-Songwriter Mark Rust
"Creativity, from a holistic viewpoint, is about helping people view a common object and/or subject from a different perspective... Creativity is thus the journey of finding connections between people, things, and ideas, and ultimately gaining new insights into reality." - Vincent Lee, Founder, B.R.A.N.D. me
"Creativity means different things to different people. For me, it means using the media in an innovative way to truly connect with your audience in an authentic way." - Carli Johnson, Founder, Carli Communications
"Creativity is having an idea and having the tools, discipline and self belief to bring it to life" - Liam Flynn, Founder, Music Grotto
"For me, creativity is the ability to see nothing and everything at the same time. I had to learn how to control my perspective and in turn my response to life, if I ever wanted to feel true joy. Shitty things happen in life--that's guaranteed. But, how you react to them and how you inform your reality makes all the difference in how rich your life truly is. Simply, creativity is letting go of the fear of acceptance; a true creation knows no judgement, it simply exists. - Gabrielle Pickens, Founder, Pickens Creative
"Creativity is simply imaginative expression... creativity is the art of using your gifts, your unique thoughts, memories, experiences and other aspects that make you 'you', to present a thought or manifest an idea that essentially, only you can create." - Andrew Taylor, Director, Net Law Man
"Creativity depends on how you view it. If you have the ability to think and take action, you are creative." - Lynell Ross, Founder, Zivadream
"Creativity is the ability to find and execute the solution(s) to known and unknown problems. It allows for the fluid harmonization between logic/intellect and chaotic wonderment simultaneously- the visible product of the void where all is formed." - Leah Brock-White, Founder, Chosen Eyes
"Creativity is a process in which something new and valuable (or of value) is formed. The thing created can be intangible (an idea, theory or even a new joke) or it can be tangible, a physical thing (a play, a painting or a new battery)..." - Ian Martin Ropke, Founder, Your Japan Private Tours
"Creativity means not being normal. Double-think people and take a second glance." - Frank Ienzi, Founder, Frank Ienzi Marketing
"Creativity is resourcefulness in action." - Courtney Werner, Founder, Koya Innovations
"Creativity is creating something out of nothing. Creativity is making something better than it was originally. Creativity is being different than others. Creativity is having the confidence to put yourself out there not caring about what others may think. Creativity is being your authentic self." - Elandis Miller, Founder, Kicking It Sports
"Creativity is the ability to connect two previously unrelated frameworks of reference in an unusual way to generate new meaning" - Edoardo Binda Zane, Founder, EBZ Consulting
"Creativity takes longer to stew than practicality, but it really seems to pay off with greater rewards, at least in the self-fulfillment category." - Margelit Hoffman, Founder, Hoffman Productions
"Creativity within the arts (ie. Photography, film, painting, sculpting etc), with an emphasis on my professional field, photography, is simply just the act of using your imagination to make something" - Photographer Alex Costin
"Creativity is the process of finding a solution to a problem" - Writer Louis Greenstein
"I see creativity along a spectrum with one end defined by George Washington Carver's quote 'when you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world' (doing something quite ordinary in a new and interesting way) to the other end where you use your imagination to come up with something completely new and original to produce tangible or intangible value." - Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder, Mavens and Moguls
"The fundamental components of creativity are individualism, innovativeness, and curiosity. These three components make up creativity, and have resulted in many of the most impactful discoveries/inventions in history.” - Andrew Jezic, Founding Partner, Law Offices of Jezic & Moyse

38 contributors. 38 unique responses. Next we asked what the core components of creativity are under the impression that we can only automate what abides by reliable, simple logic.

Components of Creativity

47 Components of Creativity

38 contributors. 47 components. That's a lot of variation. To refine the vast expanse of what's considered creativity, we extracted a few popular models from professional reviews of the academic literature.

Scientific Models of Creativity

Mark Runco, one of the foremost creativity researches takes two centuries of creativity definitions and summarizes them in his 2012 article with Garrett Jaeger, The Standard Definition of Creativity:

"The standard definition is bipartite: Creativity requires both originality and effectiveness."

Runco and Jaeger's definition is near identical with the legal definition:

"New and useful. The phrase used in the patent laws to describe the two qualities of an invention or discovery which are essential to make it patentable, viz., novelty, or the condition of having been previously unknown, and practical utility."

While 'new and useful' is concise, it's not enough to satisfy the full depth of the meaning of creativity as proposed by our 33 contributors above. Runco along with Aaron Kozbelt and Ronald Beghetto, in their 2008 textbook, Theories of Creativity, compiled 10 primary theories of creativity from varying academic disciplines.

One important theory notably missing from the overview is neuroscience. To fill that gap, we drew from two major reviews. The fist being R. Keith Sawyer, in The Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity: A Critical Review, 2011, Creativity Research Journal:

Creativity is creative insight + problem-solving + distant association + domain expertise + incubation period (or micro-incubation a.k.a. mind-wandering)

Perhaps more useful from Sawyer's review were the hard truths of what creativity is not. A few myth-busting quotes from the paper:

"The entire brain is active when people are engaged in creative tasks."
"The left and right hemispheres are equally activated"
"Creativity involves a wide variety of everyday cognitive abilities."
"Creativity is not dependent on any particular mental process or brain region."
"Some of the definitions of creativity used by creativity researchers—such as “novelty plus appropriateness”—are not suitable for CN methodologies. Another widely used concept—divergent thinking—does not seem to be localizable in the brain. Association (in the convergent thinking task of the RAT) is partially localizable, but not completely."

Arne Dietrich takes Sawyer's formulaic view one step further with his four form matrix model described in Figure 1 below.

Arne Dietrich The Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity 2004 in Creativity and Neuroscience
  1. Deliberate-Cognitive: Expertise (relevant working memory items)+ general 'nimbleness' of Prefrontal Cortex (decision-making, self-control, etc)
  2. Deliberate-Emotional: Memory + complex universal emotional experiences
  3. Spontaneous-Cognitive: Associative unconscious thinking + "relaxation of constraints" + incubation + relevant information in working memory
  4. Spontaneous-Emotional: "Spontaneously generated emotional information entering consciousness"

These four combinations are all forms of creativity derived from specific patterns of neural activity. Though these forms of creativity certainly exist, there are many other popular theoretical models in the academic literature that are not based in brain science.
For example, Ruth Noller's formula for creativity:

Source: Creative Approaches to Problem Solving

One such view is Robert Sternberg's Investment Theory from The Nature of Creativity, 2006:

"Our investment theory of creativity (Sternberg &Lubart, 1991, 1995) is a confluence theory according to which creative people are those who are willing and able to “buy low and sell high” in the realm of ideas (see also Rubenson & Runco, 1992, for the use of concepts from economic theory). Buying low means pursuing ideas that are unknown or out of favor but that have growth potential. Often, when these ideas are first presented, they encounter resistance. The creative individual persists in the face of this resistance and eventually sells high, moving on to the next new or unpopular idea... According to the investment theory, creativity requires a confluence of six distinct but interrelated resources: intellectual abilities, knowledge, styles of thinking, personality, motivation, and environment."undefined

Sternberg's six components draw indirectly from Teresa Amabile's 1983 Componential Framework.

Amabile summarizes:

"Creativity is the product of novel and appropriate solutions to open-ended problem in any domain of human activity.”

There's one last well defined component-based model which combines neuroscience with creativity research to break new ground: Kelly Kent's Right Brain Project. The Right Brain Project proposes five core components of creativity and one overarching definition that encompasses those components. The holistic view is that all humans are creative entities by default. This is known as Network Theory.
Network Theory comprises five core components:

Plasticity: Ability to make new connections between new, distant pieces of information
Attention
: External attention is overloaded with stimulus, but creativity requires internal attention.
Motivation
: Creativity requires reward in the form of dopamine. Dopamine comes from satisfying curiosity through embracing environmental risk and failure to learn.
Social Wiring
: Empathy is a form of creativity in itself. Empathy requires taking someone else's perspective, stepping out of your paradigm to see the world in a new one.
Emotions & Stress: Stress in the right levels improves performance, but too much or too little is counter-creative. Levels vary on a bell curve by interest in activity.

With all those components in mind, as well as more holistic definitions, creativity is still an unrefined concept. At least now there's some color to its aspects. To truly see how AI compares to human creativity, we will dissect the current state of AI technology and predictions for its future direction.

AI Capacity for Creativity

Artificial Intelligence is a nebulous topic that includes defining intelligence itself, defining artificiality, advanced robotics, and moral questions that will likely haunt us one way or the other for eons. That being said, the present state of AI is defined by what computers can do in comparison to what a human brain can do.
As of 2020, AI can navigate somewhat chaotic environments (see Waymo and Roomba), replicate human motion, and beat people at any kind of rule-based game, even as complex as Go (see AlphaGo). Andrew Ng breaks down 7 more common machine solved problems, and Wikipedia lists 25 categories of AI applications.

When you scroll down to the 'creative' sections, music and writing, you'll see that AI can even make aesthetically pleasing compositions. Moreover, Wikipedia's entry on "Computational Creativity" paints a bleaker visage of human triumph against computer-generated creative. It can form jokes, emotionally stimulating poetry, even solve problems reserved for 'insight' solutions.

Fortunately for us, there is one vital flaw in artificial creativity: it's chained to its inputs. Who enters those inputs? Humans! AI is still largely incapable of meeting any of the definitions for creativity listed above by the fact that it can't take in information for its own. Humans naturally, often unconsciously absorb everything around them at all times, outputting great achievements by the day. Just look to human history for validation. AI is just another tools in the barnyard helping us plow the field, another plane helping us travel the world, another computer helping us crunch numbers.

In sum total, AI is a learning tool. Where stones sped up hunting, AI speeds up learning. Human learning. While we do train AI to learn for themselves, the algorithms are still primarily human driven - and they will be for a while. Herbert Simon, renowned economist and AI futurist quoted 1985 as the year AI would catch up. He was wrong. Vernor Vinge, famed futurist, computer scientist, and sci-fi author predicts 2023; he will be wrong. Others say 2029 or 2040... they will likely be wrong too.

When will AI truly output "1, x, butterfly" instead of 1, 2, 3? When will AI have imagination, be its 'authentic self', order chaos, master its own madness? When will it come up with 15 definitions for a single concept? When will it compete with billions of neurons each making billions of connections? Most importantly, when will it replicate complex emotion?

The fact of the matter is, it won't. Possibly ever. Humans are just too deeply situated in so many layers of reality that a single human experience of any kind outruns any single moment of AI existence in terms of productivity, progress, and of course, creativity. But, what AI can and will do is enable humanity to be more creative than ever. AI gives humanity the ability to speed through mental evolution much like computers did when they first arrived. Thus dawns the age of AI-enabled creativity.

AI-Enabled Creativity

Artificial intelligence has already begun automating meticulous tasks to free up time for people to do the real work of creativity: idea generation. Tasks like audio transcription and text-to-voice have gotten to a point that barely requires human input. On the other hand, tasks like creating new music and writing scene scripts are enhanced by AI analysis of historical data. Key word: enhanced. Not replaced. That's because machine learning from the past can only give you combinations that mirror what's already been done. Humans are necessary to innovate from that data to create the next big idea.

Nicola Morini Bianzini, Ernst & Young's Chief Client Technology Officer, offers three ways AI augments creativity:

  1. More time for innovation
  2. Potential to combine tech in creative ways
  3. Data-driven creative decision-making

All three require human input. Innovation is unavailable to machines as already mentioned, only humans can combine AI functions for a singular goal and only humans have the emotional intelligence to make creative decisions that will impact other humans. At the end of the day, the economy runs on humans making things for other humans. It's hard to imagine a world in which AI makes everything for humans. Even if that was the case, we'll just move on to greener projects like we have with every other invention that has come along and driven fear through the hearts of the masses.

People are always nervous when new tech develops that potentially threatens their livelihood. Historically, people have learned to use those technologies, build on them, and enhance themselves rather than replace themselves. This will almost certainly be the case with AI. For more interesting ways that AI is revolutionizing creativity, follow updates on Creative Applications, Creative Technology, and Experiments with Google. For how AI can augment your ad creative, read our data-driven creative testing guide below!

How to Run a Multivariate Test

The Beginner's Guide

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Tiffany Johnson Headshot

How to Run a Multivariate Test
The Beginner's Guide

Plus, Get our Weekly
Experimentation newsletter!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
CompanyAbout UsPrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
Careers
Hiring