Computer Models of Creativity Margaret Boden

Boden suggests 3 different types of creativity:

combinatorial exploratory and transformative

may be a useful way to think about value in art

“Creativity can be defined as the ability to generate

novel, and valuable, ideas. Valuable, here, has

many meanings: interesting, useful, beautiful, simple,

richly complex, and so on. Ideas covers many

meanings too: not only ideas as such (concepts,

theories, interpretations, stories), but also artifacts

such as graphic images, sculptures, houses, and jet

engines. Computer models have been designed to

generate ideas in all these areas and more (Boden……………….


As for novel, that has two importantly different

meanings: psychological and historical. A psychological

novelty, or P-creative idea, is one that’s new

to the person who generated it. It doesn’t matter how

many times, if any, other people have had that

idea before. A historical novelty, or H-creative idea,

is one that is P-creative and has never occurred in

history before

Combinational creativity produces unfamiliar

combinations of familiar ideas, and it works by

making associations between ideas that were previously

only indirectly linked. Examples include

many cases of poetic imagery, collage in visual art,

and mimicry of cuckoo song in a classical symphony.

Analogy is a form of combinational creativity

that exploits shared conceptual structure

and is widely used in science as well as art. (Think

of William Harvey’s description of the heart as a

pump, or of the Bohr-Rutherford solar system

model of the atom.)

It is combinational creativity that is usually

mentioned in definitions of “creativity” and that

(almost always) is studied by experimental psychologists

specializing in creativity. But the other

two types are important too


Exploratory creativity rests on some culturally

accepted style of thinking, or “conceptual space.”

This may be a theory of chemical molecules, a style

of painting or music, or a particular national cuisine.

The space is defined (and constrained) by a

set of generative rules. Usually, these rules are

largely, or even wholly, implicit. Every structure

produced by following them will fit the style concerned,

just as any word string generated by English

syntax will be a gramatically acceptable English


(Style-defining rules should not be confused

with the associative rules that underlie combinational

creativity. It’s true that associative rules generate—

that is, produce—combinations. But they

do this in a very different way from grammarlike

rules. It is the latter type that are normally called

“generative rules” by AI scientists.)

In exploratory creativity, the person moves

through the space, exploring it to find out what’s

there (including previously unvisited locations)—

and, in the most interesting cases, to discover both

the potential and the limits of the space in question.

These are the “most interesting” cases

because they may lead on to the third form of creativity,

which can be the most surprising of all.

In transformational creativity, the space or style

itself is transformed by altering (or dropping) one

or more of its defining dimensions. As a result,

ideas can now be generated that simply could not

have been generated before the change. For

instance, if all organic molecules are basically

strings of carbon atoms, then benzene can’t be a

ring structure. In suggesting that this is indeed

what benzene is, the chemist Friedrich von Kekule

had to transform the constraint string (open curve)

into that of ring (closed curve). This stylistic transformation

made way for the entire space of aromatic

chemistry, which chemists would explore

[sic] for many years.

The more stylistically fundamental the altered

constraint, the more surprising—even shocking—

the new ideas will be. It may take many years for

people to grow accustomed to the new space and

to become adept at producing or recognizing the

ideas that it makes possible. The history of science,

and of art too, offers many sad examples of people

ignored, even despised, in their lifetimes whose

ideas were later recognized as hugely valuable.

(Think of Ignaz Semmelweiss and Vincent van

Gogh, for instance. The one was reviled for saying

that puerperal fever could be prevented if doctors

washed their hands, and went mad as a result; the

other sold only one painting in his lifetime.)

Transformational creativity is the “sexiest” of

the three types, because it can give rise to ideas

that are not only new but fundamentally different

from any that went before. As such, they are often

highly counterintuitive. (It’s sometimes said that

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