Month: July 2009

Questions of creativity

Computational Creativity seminar attendees
Computational Creativity seminar

I attended the start of the Dagstuhl seminar on computational creativity last week, although sadly had to leave after the first day due to family illness (which very sadly is still ongoing).  Anyway here is the position statement I prepared for the seminar, which attempts to answer some fundamental questions around creativity.  I regret I had to leave before getting feedback on these thoughts from the group at Dagstuhl, so any comments here are very much appreciated!

What does creativity produce?

A concept is `a mental representation of a class of things’ (Murphy 2002, p.5), and concepts are the primary output of a creative process. In other words, creativity is the process in which a creative agent recognises a new kind of thing, or modifies their understanding of a kind of thing, changing their view of the world in some valuable way. The visible output of a creative process may be a single thing, but it is the novelty and value of the concept behind the thing that shows creativity. The creative outcome is in the mind, not in a physical object.

Where are concepts represented?

A conventional view is that conceptual representation, and indeed cognition in general is functionally separated from perception. Theories of embodied cognition however take the view that concepts are inherently perceptual; that concepts arise from recurrent states in sensory-motor systems, which in turn form the building blocks of higher level abstract thought. If we creatively generate new concepts, then we are literally altering our perception of the world and of ourselves.

How are concepts represented?

How a concept is represented in human cognition is an open question, for example one view is that a concept is represented by a single best example or prototype, and another being that a concept is represented by a large number of memories, or exemplars. Theories of embodied cognition such as perceptual symbol systems proposed by Barsalou (2009) and conceptual spaces proposed by Gärdenfors (2000) take the prototype view. For example according to Barsalou (2009) concepts are based on incomplete, distorted and often vague summaries of prior perceptual states. Barsalou attributes the unpopularity of embodied cognition to the lack of understanding of this fragmentary and partly subconscious nature of perception. Gärdenfors (2000) also takes a prototype view, but in addition proposes that concepts are inherently geometric, where conceptual properties are convex regions within the quality dimensions of conceptual domains. He goes on to base a system of cognitive semantics on this geometric view, grounded in spatial metaphor as mappings between geometric domains.

What is creative search?

Creativity is described by Boden (1990) and formalised by Wiggins (2006b,a) as a search in a space. Three sets of rules are employed in this search; rules defining traversal of the space, evaluation of the concepts found in the space, and the space itself. However, a creative search is more than a reactive process of traversal and evaluation. Creativity also requires introspection, self-modification and for boundaries to be broken. In other words, the rule sets described above need to be examined and challenged by the agent following them. In the terms of Gärdenfors (2000), the search space is a concept, and the search is for concept instances.[1] For example in a creative search for music within a genre, the genre would be the concept and a piece of music conforming to a genre would be a concept instance.

Artists often speak of self-imposed constraints as providing creatively fertile ground. In terms of a creative search such constraints form the boundary of a space. It is possible for a search to traverse beyond that boundary, thus finding invalid concepts. If invalid yet (according to evaluation rules) valued concepts are found, then the space should be enlarged to include the concept. An invalid concept which is not valued indicates that our traversal strategy is flawed and should be modified to avoid such concepts in the future. A single traversal operation may result in both valid and invalid concepts being found, indicating both the traversal rules and the definition of the space should be modified. Returning to our musical example, we can think of a creative piece of music that has altered the boundaries of a music genre, or defined a whole new genre. Indeed music which does not break boundaries to any degree could be considered uncreative.

It is important to recognise that changes in conceptual structures first happen in an individual, which in the case of music would be the composer or improviser. Another individual’s conceptual structures may be modified to accord with a composer’s new concept by listening to the new concept instance, although success is only likely if the individual already shares the music cultural norms of the composer.

Embodied creative search

Wiggins (2006b,a) formalises creative search in order to provide a comparative framework, and so is agnostic to views of representation. However by taking the view of embodied cognition summarised here, we may define embodied creative search, where sensory-motor faculties are used to navigate a geometric space, in direct metaphor to a search through a physical space. In this view, creative computation requires concepts to be represented in a manner at least sympathetic with the way humans perceive, act and introspect. More detail on this position in the context of musical creativity is given by Forth et al. (2008). Further, an approach to symbolic description of musical sounds informed by human perception termed vocable synthesis is provided by McLean and Wiggins (2009). Both papers are available for download on the Dagstuhl seminar website alongside this position statement.


[1] The terms used by Gärdenfors (2000) diverge from those used by Wiggins (2006b,a). Wiggins uses the term conceptual space in the place of Gärdenfors’ concept, and concept in the place of concept instance. The meaning is however the same, particularly when the recursive heirarchy of Wiggins’ theory is taken into account.


Barsalou, L. W. (2009).
Simulation, situated conceptualization, and prediction.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1521):1281-1289.

Boden, M. (1990).
The Creative Mind.

Forth, J., McLean, A., and Wiggins, G. (2008).
Musical creativity on the conceptual level.
In IJWCC 2008.

Gärdenfors, P. (2000).
Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought.
The MIT Press.

McLean, A. and Wiggins, G. (2009).
Words, movement and timbre.
In Proceedings of NIME.

Murphy, G. L. (2002).
The Big Book of Concepts (Bradford Books).
The MIT Press.

Wiggins, G. A. (2006a).
A preliminary framework for description, analysis and comparison of creative systems.
Journal of Knowledge Based Systems.

Wiggins, G. A. (2006b).
Searching for computational creativity.
New Generation Computing, 24(3):209-222.

Patterns of movement in live languages

I’ve had a paper accepted for the 25th CHArt conference on the subject of live coding, here’s the synopsis.

Programmers do their work by writing and modifying software in text form.  That is, a piece of software is a structure made from words. These structures are generally too big to comprehend in their entirety, so programmers instead focus on small detail and overall plans; looking up for parts to combine and simplify and looking down for places to build.  But this is not architecture, these structures are more like machines than static buildings.  A programmer’s work is set in motion by a program interpreter, with information flowing in and around processing units before being directed outward in response.

Usually a programmer will build their work off-line, stepping back to start it up, watch it work and decide upon the next edit.  Live coding programmers however work on their software while it runs, much like modifying a running machine.  Because the software is built from words, this is done by editing it as text, adding new routines or changing the nature of an existing one.  Such a change affects the output immediately, allowing fast creative feedback.

Where a written novel exists to describe human activity, written software exists to simulate it.  Therefore the live coder can take the role of an artist, constructing simulators in order to generate patterns of movement, either as music, video animation or both.  This can be done in front of a live audience, so that the process of building software becomes the process of improvising music or video in performance art.

In this way programmers are finally taking to the stage, introspecting and encoding their musical thoughts before an audience.  A tradition of live coding has quickly formed where computer screens are projected, making the programmer’s reactions to their work visible.  Questions of authorship disappear; the performance is live, the programmer improvising through the medium of written language.

Live coders allow us to look upon the interplay between language and performance art with renewed interest.  In this paper the current activity of live coders will be reviewed, to try to understand where this relatively new practice is taking us.