Imagine If Creativity Died?

Alex Turner-Cohen’s ‘Imagine If’ column looks at implications for the future, and radical experiments from the past. Image: UTSoC Creative

Alex Turner-Cohen’s ‘Imagine If’ column looks at implications for the future, and radical experiments from the past. Image: UTSoC Creative

As a writer, Alex Turner-Cohen knows she’ll never be replaced by machines. But what if she’s wrong? What happens when creativity dies?

“In the long run no job will remain absolutely safe from automation. Even artists should be put on notice” — Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

 

The year: 2048

“I’ve created something extraordinary, something that will change the world as we know it.”

The microphone catches my words and throws them out like grenades, echoing around the press conference room. I squint at the audience, but they all seem faceless, resembling automatons, nothing but vague shadows against the bright lights.

Particles of anticipation float, invisible, in the room. Journalists have thrust their recording devices so far forward that I could probably reach over and touch one. I’m a god and these are my worshippers.

Because I’ve finally done it. My creation is finished.

And yet, and yet…my voice is robotic, emotionless, as I speak. I feel as if I’m delivering a eulogy rather than a press announcement. Is this creativity’s funeral? Or the birth of something new? Something better?

Instinctively, I place my hand inside my left pocket, and rub the cold, smooth surface of my creation. I like to touch it, feel its weight, know it’s with me all the time.

Should I go ahead with this?

***

Ten minutes earlier

I waited for my turn in the spotlight.

Peeking out from the wings of the stage, I tried to see my older sister, Evie. I’d reserved a seat for her in the front row of the auditorium. Only, her seat was empty. Nothing but a “VIP” sign occupied the chair.

Disappointment left a metallic taste in my mouth. I had been such a dutiful brother to Evie, attending book launch after book launch for her sci-fi best-sellers, Humanity Hacked, The Road to Nowhere and Escaping the Universe. All the while I stood by her side — the untalented younger offspring. Everyone told me how grateful I should be, that my sister’s money protected me from living like the other irrelevants, out on the streets.

Except for Evie’s empty seat, the room was packed with press. Some spilled out onto the steps, elbowing each other for the best spots to see me. Casual jumpers and corporate suits blended together into one jumble of journalists.

Backstage with me were a dozen automatons, but no other humans. They were humanoid, with robotic hands and feet. Their faces were featureless. It was like staring into a void, where two eyes, a nose and a mouth should have been.

The robots performed one task after another, perfecting the lighting, righting the volume on the mic, setting up the live broadcast — never any mistakes, and at minimal cost.

BLIP! BLIP! BLIP! An alarm sounded. The automatons stopped in unison for a moment, then burst into action. A blur of silver on silver.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Please remain calm, Dr. Victor Fallon,” the nearest machine said. Its voice sounded hollow, emanating from speakers in its chest. “We have reason to believe an irrelevant is on the loose. They’ve sabotaged some broadcast equipment, however everything will be back to working order shortly.”

A few automatons clustered around the fuse box at the far end of the room. The wires had been cut, hacked to pieces. Destroyed with unmistakable vengeance.

My body buzzed with uneasiness. Armed automatons patrolled the TV broadcast studio at all hours of the day, so how had an irrelevant broken through? Regarding the room furtively, I imagined irrelevants lurking in the folds of the curtains behind stage, their emaciated limbs reaching out, hollow eyes staring at me, like monsters straight out of a horror story. I reached for the USB drive in my left pocket, allowing my creation’s touch to soothe me.

There were two classes of people left in the world — relevants and irrelevants. Relevants were people still useful to society; the creative thinkers — artists, actors, entrepreneurs — who hadn’t been replaced by Artificial Intelligence. Yet.

The rest were irrelevant. People with no prospects, no future. No use at all, really.

Just like Liam Grimes. He used to bully me at school for majoring in Science (“scientist” was a dirty word ever since the creation of automatons). Liam graduated top of my class and went on to study law. “Most likely to succeed”, he was named in the yearbook.

Problem was, while humans spent years training for their field, automatons could download all the world’s knowledge in a single night. At first, machines took over labour-intensive jobs like hospitality, retail, and construction. But soon they had replaced lawyers and other prestigious positions like doctors and psychologists. Any job that didn’t require creativity had become automated.

On my way to the broadcast studio today, I’d passed Liam. I’d barely recognised him. He was kneeling by the roadside, beard matted, holding his hands out like a beggar. As recognition flared in his eyes, I told the automaton driver to step on it. With a rush of satisfaction.

“Victor!” a familiar voice called. My sister, Evie. She wore casual clothes for once, jeans and a coat. No need to dress the part when it wasn’t her in the spotlight.

“Evie!” I said, more pleased to see her than I’d expected. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Of course I’m here for your big day, little bro,” she said, ruffling my hair, as she always did. Although I was in my thirties, I would always be her ‘little’ brother. “The automatons let me backstage to wish you luck.”

“Thanks, Evie,” I said, smiling. “Means a lot.”

There was a moment’s pause. Old resentments lingered on the edges of our tongues, unspoken, but ever-present.

“So…,” she said, “are you sure you want to go ahead with this?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just, you know, you’ll be a target after tonight. A lot of people hate Artificial Intelligence. They’ll hate Super Intelligence even more.”

That’s what I’d invented. Super Intelligence. Programmed within the USB in my pocket were thousands of lines of coding — the most powerful algorithm ever created. Artificial Intelligence could mimic human actions, replacing labourers with its mechanical hands and feet. But Super Intelligence could do so much more. It was capable of independent thought. A self-learner. And in time, it would develop consciousness.

I called it Victor_2.0.

My creation could write novels, generate music, paint artworks. It could answer any question in mathematics, law and science. Most importantly, it had answers for all the philosophical questions the world was grappling with, like who should live and who should die. The final solution to all human problems.

This was the last invention mankind ever had to make.

“They might hate Super Intelligence,” I said. “But I’ll be so rich and powerful by then it won’t matter.”

“If money’s the reason you’re doing this, I can help you out. Just say the word and I’ll increase your monthly allowance.” She added more quietly: “You can have everything. Everything I own. Take it all.”

Evie was rich. As one of the country’s best-selling authors, she had a six-figure income. All my life she had supported me financially. My uncreative skillset meant I’d never found even the most basic job; those all went to the automatons.

“Is this a bribe?” I asked. “Paying me off to stay silent?”

“I just want you to be sure in your decision.”

She bit her bottom lip, a tell-tale sign she was trying to sell a lie. When we were kids she did that, whenever she told me she liked my stories.

Cogs clicked in my brain, creaking, squealing. “You didn’t come backstage to wish me luck.” I pointed at the sabotaged fuse box. “You came to do that.”

The cut wires lay in a pile, as an automaton did some last-minute repairs.

“You never could let me be special, could you?” I heard the whine in my words.

“You know, Victor,” she said, “For someone so clever, you really are stupid. You have these near god-like powers at your fingertips but you’re behaving like a child! All you can think about is showing me up.”

I opened my mouth to protest but she wasn’t done. Even now, Evie could make me feel useless, inferior. Irrelevant.

“Have you even thought about what will happen, once you tell the world? Creativity is the only thing we have left. If you take that away, we’ll all become… irrelevant.”

“Something I’ve felt for years, watching you get all the praise while I sit idly by,” I shot back.

She sighed. “This is bigger than you and I, you must see that.”

“What would you have me do? Throw away my life’s work? Live up to everyone’s expectation — of failure?”

“Yes,” she said simply. “All I do is write stories to amuse people. Today, you can save humanity, Victor.”

I hadn’t expected that — such an admission of my achievement. My superiority.

“But no-one will ever know,” I said, my voice a whisper.

“I’ll know.”

“Dr. Fallon,” an automaton said. “It’s time.”

***

 “I’ve created something extraordinary, something that will change the world as we know it,” I announce to the crowd.

And I hesitate.

We’ll all become… irrelevant. Evie’s words echo eerily in my mind. But my life is already irrelevant. I’m not creative; I’ve spent my entire existence being told I’ll never amount to anything. And now my sister is denying me the chance see the shock in everyone’s eyes. The respect.

I’ll know. I hear Evie’s voice.

My face is up on a big screen overhead. I stare at myself in the live recording, look right into my eyes. A trick of the light makes my irises appear a toxic, monstrous green.

Should I? Should I go ahead with this?

And I open my mouth to speak.

Alex Turner-Cohen is a second-year journalism and creative writing student. She’s the mother of dragons (well, twin pugs) and many stories. A huge GoT fan, she wants to write her own fantasy epic one day. When she isn’t writing you can find her at home, trying to persuade herself to go to the gym