Loops, search and the creative process

I have described rationality as the ability to represent the world correctly (in a brain). Correct representation allows for correct predictions. Predictions in turn allow choosing those actions that will attain goals; an intelligent agent can predict the result of its actions and develop plans accordingly. It sounds complicated but it’s really a routine process. Here’s a pigeon doing something like it.

Without the ability to develop plans (and during learning stages) an agent is limited to trying every possibility and seeing what happens. But trying everything out in the real world can be slow and even dangerous. So intelligent agents simulate the outside world internally to carry out the trial and error process much more quickly, and safely. This trial and error process is a loop.

A creative process can also be seen as a search containing a trial and error loop. I’m using the term creative process loosely and inclusively. It applies to any process where we are creating something with some specific intent and criterion. Call the result art if you like. It can be a painting, a computer program, a piece of music or the design for a bridge. There are many manifestations, but they can all be interpreted as a search for a solution in a large space of possibilities; finding good solutions is not trivial.

This is why trial and error is necessary. It cannot be known ahead of time what the best solution will be, nor how good a particular solution is, except by trying them out. During such trials the creator evaluates a solution. This evaluation then propagates information back to the search for other solutions, establishing a feedback loop.

Does this view of the creative process offer any insights as to how to best carry it out?

First, it is clear that, all other things being equal, the more possibilities are considered the higher the quality of the final solution will be. So speeding up the feedback loop can dramatically improve the outcome; removing barriers and delays between creation and evaluation. It turns out that the speed of the feedback loop is very sensitive to advances in technology, here are a few examples:

All these advances and many others can be interpreted as a tightening of the feedback loop, accelerating the creative process and thus exploring more possibilities. A straightforward example above is digital photography. By eliminating chemical processing the time between taking a shot and judging the result is drastically reduced (including reductions due to limited film etc). There are potential pitfalls, a faster feedback loop may also encourage a less disciplined and principled approach. But this is more a side effect of the advance than a property of the advance itself, which ceteris paribus is usually a net gain.

3D modeling

And another point can be made. When searching for solutions, the creator will inevitably be limited to a fraction of the search space. And the quality of the final solution can only be as high as that present in that space. There’s a tradeoff, if the space is too large, the search will be bogged down in the filtering of many low quality results. But if it’s too small, the quality of the best solution present in the examined space will be bounded, producing stagnation.

So the second insight is that adding a random element to a creative process allows the search space to be expanded beyond that which would be possible otherwise. This is the role of accident in art. It allows the creator to transcend his/her limits in exchange for more labor or a possibly worse outcome.


Additional interpretations are possible in terms of search and search spaces, for example

– The role of knowledge and expertise as a search heuristic

– Process specifics as search bias

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