The creative potential of robots

A few years ago, someone chucked a laptop into a dumpster full of rubbish. Not long afterwards a married couple, walking past the dumpster at the end of their road, noticed the laptop bag. They took it home, checked it out and discovered it was a perfectly functional working computer, which had been chucked out because it had been superseded by something a bit newer and shinier.

This observation led to a discussion about the nature of society’s relationship with technology and the growing ignorance of tech by the people who use it. It seemed that if the technology wasn’t mediated by a touchscreen surface then it would be abandoned.

Bethany Koby and Daniel Hirschmann went on to found a company that seeks to address this ignorance. Technology Will Save Us makes DIY gadget-building kits that encourage kids to play with underlying technology and make tools using soldering irons, batteries, speakers and LED light bulbs. The business is another of Silicon Roundabout’s success stories. Its DIY game-making kit has been acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and plays a key part in the BBC’s 2015 ambition to make Britain a digitally creative society.

Needless to say, the building of such a business is itself highly creative. And tech hubs such as Silicon Roundabout are bursting with such creativity. But not for long, warn the increasingly numerous doomsayers. Creativity will soon become the measured output of robots and algorithms. Humans will be surplus to requirements.

“Did you notice the music?” one such doomsayer asked me with a look of triumph ready to wash over his face. He’d been showing me a video about how robots can do absolutely everything that humans can do. It’s peculiar that someone should look so gleeful about such a thing. But unlike robots, people are deeply, inexplicably strange.

“Not really,” I said. “Exactly!” He replied and grinned horribly. “The background music to that video was written by a computer. And you didn’t even notice. See? Robots can even be creative. They’ll do startups next.”

This is known as Solutionism. It’s the giddy dream of engineers that with enough data everything can be quantified, measured, known, done, solved and explained.

And no doubt they can do an awful lot of very clever things that might appear to come from the realm of creativity. But an algorithm that might be able to process knowledge into an idea cannot actually live a life and have an idea that stems from a unique life experience.

Companies such as Technology Will Save Us are the product of personal experience and know-how. Without the pre-existing concern about the gap between technology and human experience, the abandoned laptop doesn’t become woven into the life history of a founder and spark a resonant chord that begins a business that has meaning. And without meaning, a business has no passion. And without passion, you’ll never get past the hard times.

On the subject of striking chords, consider this startup business. Music Orbit connects the world’s leading classical musicians with students. Suppose you live in Cornwall and want to have a tuba lesson with one of the world’s greatest tuba players, then Music Orbit will connect you so that you can have an online video lesson.

The founder, Nicole Wilson, was the principal violinist at the London Symphony Orchestra. And she also loved to give lessons and help new talent come through the ranks. But being a professional musician is a peripatetic existence and lessons are hard to arrange. But now students anywhere in the world can connect with the best musicians who may also be anywhere in the world. And the reason she knew this would work was because she’d spent many years as a professional musician who played and taught and had a passion for music.

Every startup tale I’ve ever come across has at its root a personal story that is absolutely unique to its founder. The fizzing synapses that join the ideas up, convert them into a business idea that has sufficient meaning and passion to the individual who will then commit to making the dream real are far beyond the scope of algorithms.

And here’s the thing about the robot music. I didn’t notice it and nor would you. It was mere chewing gum for the ears. It was rubbish.