Is Creativity Important for Robotics?

Creativity has already been a buzzword in the field of robotics. Many scientists and robotic engineers have made various researches on the designing and development of robots that can find solutions to problems creatively and integrate out-of-the-box concepts that are more enhanced and sophisticated than what humans can deliver.

At the 1st Creativity and Robotics workshop at ICSR 2020 alone, global researchers and experts discuss, debate, and investigate the creative potentials that robots can give to humanity and whether the people will accept the continuous advancement of robots. The workshop, which The Frontiers endorsed, delved on several topics concerning “The 7Cs of Creativity for Humans and Robots”.

“Creativity from a psychological perspective refers to the ability to generate new, original ideas that have meaning and value in their context,” the workshop organizers said.

The 7Cs  are Creators (individual characteristics), Creating (the process) , Collaboration (dyads or teams), Context, Creations (productions), Consumption (adoption of creative ideas), and Curricula ( learning to be creative). Participants during the program explored the contexts of 7Cs in the interests of social robots for creativity. Université de Paris Professor Todd Lubart, president of ISSCI, a non-profit, international society for the scientific study of creativity and innovation, served as the keynote speaker for the workshop.

Humanoid robot uses laptop
Robot humanoid use laptop and sit at table in concept of AI thinking brain , artificial intelligence and machine learning process for the 4th fourth industrial revolution . 3D illustration.

According to The Frontiers, creativity “has now emerged at the front line of research in the interdisciplinary field of Human-Robot Interaction (HRI).”

“By exploring novel ways to emulate creativity in robots, we aim to create new tools, as well as to advance the understanding of what creativity is in humans. Understanding human creativity is an ongoing, active research area where multiple definitions for the term ‘creativity’ exist,” it added.

In applying the concept of creativity to robotics technology, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a robotic system dubbed as “RoboGrammar” to generate an optimized structure and control program for the robots.

Allan Zhao, the paper’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), maintained that “robot design is still a very manual process.”

Humanoid robot touching virtual hologram
AI humanoid robot touching virtual hologram screen showing concept of AI brain and artificial intelligence thinking by machine learning process. 3D illustration.

In describing RoboGrammar, he said the computer system served as “a way to come up with new, more inventive robot designs that could potentially be more effective.” 

As an application of Zhao’s graph grammar, RoboGrammar works in three sequential steps: defining the problem, drawing up possible robotic solutions, and selecting optimal ones.

For a start, the human user works on the problem definition. The user is responsible for the inputs and placing available robotic components, such as robotic arms, legs, connecting segments, and motors.

The user also chooses the different kinds of terrain where the robot traverse. With the combinations of these inputs, the RoboGrammar now uses the rules of the graph grammar “to design hundreds of thousands of potential robot structures.”  The structures could be in the form of a spider, a race car, or a man doing some push-ups.

 “That’s key to making sure the final robots can actually be built in the real world. It was pretty inspiring for us to see the variety of designs. It definitely shows the expressiveness of the grammar. Up until now, these robots are just structures,” said Zhao.

Hod Lipson, a mechanical engineer and computer scientist at Columbia University, described Zhao and his team’s work as “a crowning achievement in a 25-year quest to automatically design the morphology and control of robots.”

“The idea of using shape-grammars has been around for a while, but nowhere has this idea been executed as beautifully as in this work. Once we can get machines to design, make and program robots automatically, all bets are off,” added Lipson, who was involved in the project. Citing the success of RoboGrammar, Zhao said their system became served as hope for human creativity.

“Let’s say in a video game you wanted to generate lots of kinds of robots, without an artist having to create each one…RoboGrammar would work for that almost immediately,” Zhao said of RoboGrammar.

To promote curiosity, creativity, and generosity through robotics, at least eight kindergarten schools in Boston, United States, and Buenos Aires, Argentina also joined hands in research that sought to answer that question through the use of a coding curriculum via the block-based KIBO robot. The project, directed by Prof. Marina Bers, from Tufts University, proved that introducing robotics in early childhood where creativity abounds among children can turn technology and engineering education “more engaging and hands-on.”

The children worked in groups of 2-3 to program their robot. The members shared roles such as Programmer (student who would put the blocks together), Scanner (student who would hold KIBO and scan each block), and Robot Getter (student who would pick up the robot and bring it back to its group after the program was run).

“The coding curriculum prompts children to communicate their thinking with others and openly listen to the ideas people offer. It also promotes a multi-modal learning environment that encourages children to learn with and from each other,” said Angie Kalthoff, Early Childhood Technology (ECT) program manager, and Lynne May Lim, EPCS education and research project specialist.

According to them, children “demonstrated their creativity and resourcefulness as they solved problems inherent in programming robots and working with others as a team.”

“Perhaps the strength of their interest in and motivation to program KIBO to work got them back to the drawing board more swiftly and urged them to persist until they overcome the obstacles to achieving their goals. A curriculum founded on positive values provided a solid and fertile ground upon which these character virtues emerged,” the two authors said.

Graphics showing a robot’s arm on a man’s hand
Line graphics depicting a robot’s arm on a businessman’s hand. Concept of developing robots AI to work for humans in the future.

Top reasons why robotics promotes a culture of creativity

The integration of STEM learning and creative problem-solving in schools has enabled creativity among students, especially in robotics. This proved that creativity is paramount in how future generations innovate for robotics technology.

1. Robotics promotes new ideas of what creativity is

Creativity is best seen in robotics. Students can work together yet think differently on how they look and solve the given problem.

2. Open-ended problems shows there can be more solutions to it

Open-ended problems mostly confront students of robotics. Since it is difficult to provide one concrete answer to open-ended challenges, students will find different ways to solve it. The students’ constant interaction and brainstorming sessions allow them to think creatively and arrive to “light bulb” moments during the activities involving robots.

3. Students learn the value of taking risks

Creative ideas come out when there is an element of risk. Those students who are introduced to robotics see the challenge as an opportunity to try for more solutions amid failures.

Lynne Boucher, STEAM Director and Educator at Viera Charter School and a LEGO Education Ambassador Program (LEAP) teacher, emphasized that “while robotics may seem overwhelming at first, it is truly a great tool to implement in the classroom to promote a culture of creativity.”

“Not only does it emphasize meaningful problem-based learning, it also offers unique applications for hands-on learning in cooperative groups, allowing students to gain important communication and teamwork skills necessary for the modern workplace,” Boucher said.