Why AI Can’t Make Human Creativity Obsolete

Recent history gives us a powerful and definitive reason for hope

Alberto Romero


Credit: MrUgleh

By the year 2000 people worried that professional chess was doomed.

Who would prefer inferior human games when IBM’s Deep Blue could beat then-world champion Garry Kasparov? Machines would get better and better: if they could already outmatch the best humans, what was the point? We would surely just sit there, in awe, admiring chess-playing machines transcend beyond comprehension.

It didn’t happen.

Machines got better, true, but humans kept playing. And we kept watching other humans play. Perhaps it was because chess engines like Deep Blue, or its modern version, Stockfish, are too inhuman. They are strong players but cold and calculative. The spark of genius can’t be codified, which results in a lack of insight and inventiveness. That’s a turnoff.

Circa 2020. This time was different — surely no one will ever watch another human chess match now that AIs play not just better than the best humans but the likes of AlphaZero do it in an uncannily similar creative way. As the NYT put it, AlphaZero “played … intuitively and beautifully, with a romantic, attacking style.” What’s left for humans to offer?

But it didn’t happen either.

We still enjoy watching humans play chess against humans just as much or more than before. If anything, AI has made us better players overall.

Given the evidence, I wonder where the fear that AI will make human creativity obsolete comes from. Why do we think that once AI learns to write better than Shakespeare and Tolstoy, compose better than Mozart and Beethoven, or paint better than Picasso and da Vinci, it will be the end of human creativity? Even now, as I argue to counter that notion, I can’t help but feel a sting of fear for a loss that seems certain.

But that kind of fear appears irrational when the only category where AI has undoubtedly surpassed humans forever points to the contrary: we still enjoy (and consume) the way humans play chess. Actually, “chess is booming.” There are reasons, like increased online competition, that could partially explain the trend, but isn’t it weird regardless? Now that humans…