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Monday, May 9, 2016

Boredom spurs creativity; are computers or mobile phone owners ever bored?

Boredom matters. We need it. But, two sets of supposedly thinking entities are never bored: “smart” (deep learning) computers, and people who are attached to their phones (which is beginning to look like nearly everybody.)

A friend’s teenage son (who was coming over for some advice) rang my doorbell the other day. In the time it took me to open the door, he was already looking at his phone. When I am on the elevator in my New York apartment I notice that literally everyone is look at their phones during the ride. Sherry Turkel has pointed out that this behavior is killing conversation and she is right. But it is also killing something even more important: creativity.

Creativity depends upon many things but a key one is boredom. When you are bored your mind wanders. You do this weird thing called “thinking.”

I have begun thinking more about AI in recent months because of the incessant nonsense being written about what computers can or might do. So. let me ask a simple question. Is Watson ever bored? Do these “deep learning” machines get bored? It seems obvious that they don’t. Why not? Because, in order to be bored you have to have something you like doing, a goal you are pursuing, a problem you are interested in, or wondering about and are in some way prevented from solving. 

Wittgenstein said that all creative thinking took place  in the “three B’s”: bed, bath and bus. What he meant was, that that was the only time time there was no one else talking or distracting him and with nothing much to do, his mind wandered and interesting thoughts occurred.

When could this possibly happen in the life of young people who cannot stop looking at their phones? What is there to be bored with or bored about? If you are bored with a facebook post you just go to the next one. If you are bored with whats on TV each change the channel. If you have nothing to do you surf the web. No one sits quietly and thinks any more.

I find this very scary for two reasons. Our educational system is in such bad shape in party because we don’t allow boredom which means we really do not encourage creativity. There are answers to be memorize, books to be read, and test to be  taken. We aren’t actually expected have original thoughts in high school ever. (Unless a kid happens to have a really good teacher and more freedom than is typically allowed. 

Now computers. The very idea that AI is progressing is patently absurd. What would it mean to have a smart computer that didn’t on occasion have an original idea about something? How could a computer be smart if it didn't worry about things from time to time. Americans are busy worrying about a Trump-Clinton election. We talk about it. We wonder about it. That worrying looks like thinking. What computer would worry about this? How could a computer possibly worry about this? Does Watson worry?

Now, of course that is the real AI question and the kind I used to work on when AI was funded by people who thought AI was something other than “deep learning.” I asked myself  and my students how we could get a computer to have creative thoughts. One answer is that a computer would have be trying to figure things out in some way, be considering hypotheses about whatever it is trying to explain, then imagining alternative explanations, and then trying to invent one’s own. This is what creativity looks like.

Could a computer do that? Of course it could in principle, but it wouldn’t be the so-called AI machines we have now which are very good at counting and matching and searching., That kind of AI depends on being annoyed by a state of affairs and thinking you should be able to come up with some better answer and then putting yourself in the equivalent of a bathtub or a bed or any place where it is quiet and there are no distractions so you can let your mind wander.

Computers will not become creative (or bored) any time soon unless those who fund AI change their perspective.

What really bothers me is that people won’t be creative  either. Young people’s first thought these days is to post a picture of what themselves or what they are are looking at, rather than to think about the world around them.


Unknown said...

While I generally agree with your thoughts on overhyped AI, I don't agree with your thoughts on creativity in this. Just because human beings need to be bored to be creative doesn't mean computers have to, infact thinking of AI in terms of what has come before may be holding us back. Planes don't fly by flapping but if we had stuck with that line of where would we be?

Unknown said...

Hi, Roger.
I ask for your permissión: would you allow me to translate this article into spanish and publish it at my blog?
Have a nice day!

My blog:

Roger Schank said...

translate away

Roger Schank said...

no, computer don't have to be bored, but they have to be thinking about things; this means they need to have minds that can wander; we are nowhere near this

Naveed said...


Paul Miller said...

Paul Miller said...

By the way I got to the link via typing which for whatever reason took me to the Forham site. It looks like lower income students benefit from career focus the most.

Unknown said...

Hi, this is the spanish translation of your post.
Best regards.