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Ah, the Creativity Machine – generator of a phrase I considered having tattooed onto my tender self.

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I mentioned the Creativity Machine in the footnotes of a previous post.  And certainly, it’s not a new invention either.  But it is a fascinating one, if nothing else for its illustration of what near death experiences can do to software. Yes, you head that correctly.

Some history:

In the 1980s, a man named Stephen Thaler was playing with neural networks.  Software which attempts to model the computational processes seen in brains.  At the time, it was part of his day job (he was also playing lasers, lucky man).

And, at some point, he began to wonder what would happen if he killed his neural networks.  Very creator/destroyer of him.  The idea was that its death might let him know more about what happens in organic brains when they die.

So he did it.  He built another piece of software, appropriately entitled the Grim Reaper, to kill a neural netowkr by killing off its ‘neurons’, one by one.  Basically, it disrupted the neural network’s synapses (connections).  But he didn’t just kill it.  Oh no.There was a prelude (apt, given what he did).

First, he loaded up his network with the lyrics of a bunch of different Christmas carols. and then he introduced the Grim Reaper.  And he watched what happened as the neural network watched its life flashing before its eyes – remember, this wasn’t a simple, quick shutdown, but rather a progressive disintegration*.

What he saw was fascinating.  As the damage deepened, the neural network went from reproducing the carols perfectly to recombining them using what ever was left. Now, given that creativity is often described as the ability to recombined things others haven’t thought to, this means that the poor, panicked network was being creative.  It was hallucinating: making, from the remains of its shattered and fragmented memories, new carols.

Its final line?

“All men go to good earth in one eternal silent night.”

That’s the line I considered turning into a tattoo.  I still do, sometimes.  It’s beautiful.  And, given the circumstances, incredible.

Of course, this spurred an idea.  Not in how to generate new and interesting word combinations, but in what other applications this sort of recombination could have.  Would it, he wondered, be possible to produce this sort of noise in a network without having to kill it?  So he tried, and it worked.  He was able to perturb a network’s connections, in the process changing it and generating ideas.    This time, his machine was able to invent new, ultrahard metals.  It’s the noise that’s key, it turns out, to be network’s ability to create.  Indeed, some biologists now believe that the same is true for the human brain.

In addition, creativity machines can optimise their work.  They have critic networks built into them which help them select the best ideas, enabling them to use those to generate even better ideas.

One of the most famous of the machine’s creations?  The Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush.  Yup.  And, apparently, there are a bunch of other commonly-used devices out there designed by one of these – the companies who sell them just aren’t terribly comfortable with revealing who/what designed them :)

It’s got a bunch of different applications, though – if you think about it, any space where a human brain’s ability to be creative is useful.  Naming new products and companies; designing weaponry; screening at airports; writing tabloid headlines, and so forth.

No, I don’t think we need to worry about this heralding the world domination of humans by machines (although, as previously expressed, I welcome our robot overlords).  But it is a fascinating story.  And a wonderful machine.

And, taken far enough, it could, it’s one of the technologies which could one day help us ‘download’.  Something I, for one, would be very keen to do.

Here’s a video on the subject:

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Also: I love the word “perceptron”.  And I’m not even going to go into STANNOs now.  Or the Singularity.

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Note: I’ve known this story for years.  It’s practically branded in my brain.  But I hope it’s still interesting :)

* Which reminds me of, but isn’t really related to, this marvellous TED talk, in which a neuroscientist discusses her experiences during a catastrophic stroke.