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Creative projects leave people guessing about future impact of AI

A push is underway to write creative AI algorithms that can engage in music, film and design projects. So far, they have delivered mixed results.

A new song called "Not Easy" by writer and producer Alex Da Kid debuted at No. 6 on Billboard's rock digital song sales chart earlier this month. The artist had a notable co-writer on the tune: IBM Watson.

Watson, IBM's cognitive computing system, helped identify emotional undercurrents in popular culture and directed the songwriter's efforts. The musical collaboration raises the question: Can algorithms be creative?

Say artificial intelligence these days, and inevitably people start asking about the technology's effect on jobs. Proponents often say the impact of AI will be minimal. Algorithms excel at rote tasks, things like pattern recognition or anything repetitive. To the extent that AI will affect jobs, it will free people up to engage in more creative tasks.

But early forays of AI into creative spaces suggest this division of labor, with machines taking on repetitive tasks and humans maintaining control over creative jobs, may not last forever.

Can AI be creative?

The collaboration between Alex Da Kid and Watson started with the cognitive computing platform analyzing five years' worth of The New York Times' front pages, Supreme Court rulings, statements from the Getty Museum and the most-edited Wikipedia entries in order to identify the most important events. Watson then analyzed tweets, blogs and other news stories to try to assess how people felt about the events it identified as important. Watson algorithms also analyzed the lyrical content of 26,000 songs from the Billboard Hot 100 lists of the past five years.

The algorithm eventually identified "heartbreak" as a theme people found meaningful during the past five years. Alex Da Kid used this information to help him write the song, which was released for streaming and downloading in late October.

IBM's Watson has been on a creative tear lately. In 2015, IBM introduced Chef Watson, an application that lets people input criteria for how they would like a food dish to come out. Watson then puts together ingredients and cooking instructions from scratch. And this spring, Watson designed a dress, including choosing the fabric and color pallet, for the brand Marchesa by analyzing images of the brand's previous designs.

An AI attempt at creativity fails

But before you conclude that your employment prospects are toast, thanks to the impact of AI on creative tasks, consider popular reaction to some of Watson's creative endeavors. One recent attempt at a creative field didn't go so well.

At the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi sponsored a new directors' showcase featuring short films from aspiring directors. One music video was directed by Watson. The algorithm chose visual themes based on lyrical content of the song. Organizers asked the audience to identify the machine-generated film. While audience members failed to correctly identify Watson's film, they did rate Watson's film as low-quality.

Speaking at the World of Watson conference in Las Vegas, Andrew Keegan, director of technology at Team One, a subsidiary of Saatchi & Saatchi based in Los Angeles, said the company's CEO thought the film was awful. Keegan said this raises the question of whether the role of AI in creative projects should be that of a leader or assistant.

"I don't know if it's going to be artificial intelligence or augmented intelligence," he said. "What I do know is [marketers] need to be prepared for digital disruption."

AI may fit need of advertisers

Advertisers deal with mountains of data when attempting to target a specific audience with a message to which they are likely to be receptive. This can be very data-science-heavy, segmenting potential customers based on a multitude of characteristics identified in a data set.

Keegan said this may be a good place for an AI technology like Watson. He doesn't need it to craft the message, but if it can at least point creative marketing teams in the right direction, that would save a lot of time on the segmenting side and allow them to spend more time tailoring their campaign materials. "AI will allow advertisers to focus more on branding and targeting people more effectively," he said.

This is the model IBM itself pictures. In her keynote at the conference, IBM President and CEO Ginni Rometty said, "Our goal is augmented intelligence. We envision a world where it's man and machine."

And to get true creativity, the emphasis may need to remain on the human element for a while. In Watson's collaboration with Alex Da Kid, the observation that "heartbreak" is an appropriate subject for a song isn't exactly creative in the strictest sense. People have been singing about that for centuries.

But the role of AI in creative fields is nonetheless likely to continue to grow, which means debates over the impact of AI on jobs aren't likely to subside.

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