Varshney discusses creativity and computers on World Science Festival panel


Victoria Halewicz, ECE ILLINOIS

Last month, ECE ILLINOIS Assistant Professor Lav R Varshney participated in “Computational Creativity: AI and the art of ingenuity,” part of the 2017 World Science Festival at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The panel discussed AI and the development of creativity in computers. Prof. Varshney is both a CSL and Beckman affiliate.

Lav R Varshney
Lav R Varshney

As explained in an article by Wired covering the event, Varshney’s recent work centers on the mathematical theory of creativity. His interest in cuisine has led to the integration of AI to measure food’s “goodness.” This effect is achieved through principles like hedonic psychophysics, which explain human flavor perception in terms of molecular properties. His use of algorithms has shown to be useful in other areas. For instance, they can be used to color-match clothing in the world of fashion.

"The way I've been defining it is things that are both novel, and of high quality in their domain," said Varshney during the panel. However, theoretical limitations arise when attempting to address creativity. According to Varshney, a problem occurs when increasing the value of quality and novelty. A byproduct of this method is more “noise.” This results in difficulty distinguishing between the newness and goodness of the thing being made. Creativity becomes an abstract concept that can be challenging to measure and quantify.

Varshney has also been devising algorithms to compose music. At the panel, he displayed one in the style of Bach. Though the piece may seem original, it cannot be fully referred to as pure creativity. The chords and use of instruments are all taught and replicated from these algorithms. Rather than displaying creative genius, the computer is a reliant student. 

This developing frontier of research presents numerous questions. Most importantly: will these algorithms surpass human creativity? Engel, a fellow panelist, seemed unconvinced. "The intentionality is human on both ends of the spectrum," said Engel. Humans are ultimately responsible for providing the input and being a consumer of the end product. These developments can be used as tools rather than completely replacing the need for human direction.

The panel was featured in an article by and a video of the session is available from the World Science Festival.