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Creative Collaborations

By E. Glen Weyl, Audrey Tang and ⿻ Community

Creative Collaborations

In 79 AD, the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius entombed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum along with a trove of 1,800 papyrus scrolls from the first and second centuries BC that otherwise would have deteriorated over time. These scrolls, containing significant philosophical and literary relics of an ancient world, have long tantalized scholars. Early attempts at unrolling them, beginning in the 18th century, often ended in destruction of the brittle, carbonized documents. Modern imaging techniques, however, opened new avenues for exploration, exemplified by the Vesuvius Challenge 2023— a landmark prize at the intersection of history, technology, and collaborative problem-solving. The Challenge would allow contestants computer access to the scanned scrolls to win a series of prizes for virtually unwrapping them.

To counter information siloing, the organizers introduced smaller “progress prizes” awarded bi-monthly that required participants to publish their code or research open source, enriching the entire community's shared knowledge base. Notable contributions included the “Volume Cartographer” by Seth Parker and others in Brent Seales’ lab, and Casey Handmer's identification of a unique 'crackle' pattern forming letters.[1] Youssef Nader later harnessed domain adaptation techniques on these findings.[2] As the competition progressed, its structure fostered a dynamic where winners not only shared their findings and methodologies but were also able to reinvest their winnings into enhancing their equipment and refining their techniques. This environment also proved fertile for the formation of new collaborations, as exemplified by the Grand Prize winners.

Announced February 5, 2024, the Grand Prize of $700,000 criterion was to decipher 4 passages of 140 characters each, with at least 85% of characters recoverable. In a demonstration of interdisciplinary and global cross-collaboration, a team comprising Luke Farritor (a 21-year-old college student and SpaceX intern), Nader (a doctoral student in Berlin), and Julian Schilliger (a recent master's graduate in robotics at ETH Zurich) shared a breakthrough victory to win. Together they exceeded expectations by recovering an additional 11 columns of text, containing more than 2000 characters. Each team member brought their expertise and earlier achievements to this collaborative effort. Their success not only marked a significant academic milestone but also propelled the entire field of digital archaeology forward.

Artistic expression through media such as music, visual arts, theater, architecture, film and even cuisine are among the most powerful and canonical foundations for forming the shared cultures that define social groups. While not as powerfully engaging as full multisensory shared experience, they can spread much farther and engage fully one and sometimes more sensory experiences in a richer way than verbal communication. Today, the boundaries of geography, expertise, and even audience are dissolving thanks to a mix of digital tools and platforms that unlock creative collaboration. This chapter explores how these technologies are fostering a new era of collaborative creation, characterized by unprecedented accessibility, real-time interaction, and a shared creative space. We will see how artists, educators, and entrepreneurs can harness the power of crowdsourcing and online platforms to break down barriers and expand the creative process. These technologies not only connect individuals but also foster a shared creative process that is more inclusive, dynamic, and expansive than ever before.

Cocreation today

Artistic cocreation is nothing new. For thousands of years, musicians, dancers and actors have formed bands. Some of the most canonical literary texts such as the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the Homerian epics were all almost certainly written by many hands over generations. Films sometimes have distractingly long credit rolls for a reason.

Yet these culture-defining collaborative projects have traditionally been slow and expensive, limiting both access to outputs and participation in the process of creation. Cowriting, for example, has traditionally involved months, years or even generations of retelling, adaptation, rewriting, etc. to achieve a coherent and digestible narrative. The massive live entertainment industry testifies to the expense of flying teams around the world to present the experience of creative collaboration to diverse audiences. Other forms of joint creativity, such as scientific collaborations like those highlighted above, have traditionally taken place in massive physically co-located laboratories like Los Alamos.

Yet early ⿻ technologies that became part of the fabric of the internet, imagined by people like Ted Nelson as we highlighted in The Lost Dao, have already transformed the possibilities of collaborative creative practice and sharing.

  • Online collaboration: Tools like Slack, Asana and Notion (which we used in this project) have revolutionized the workspace by enabling teams to collaborate in real-time, regardless of geographic location. These platforms support a wide range of creative projects, from software development to marketing campaigns, by providing an infrastructure for communication, project management, and document sharing. They exemplify how digital workspaces can enhance productivity and foster a sense of community among team members.

  • Cloud-based creative software: Adobe Creative Cloud, Autodesk, and GitHub (which was the primary platform for writing this book) offer sophisticated tools for designers, engineers, and developers to work on shared projects simultaneously. This technology allows for real-time feedback and iteration, reducing the time from concept to creation and enabling a more fluid and dynamic creative process. Even more prominently, collaborative word processing software such as Google docs has enabled real-time collaborative editing by many people in diverse geographies.

  • Open-source projects: Some of the most ambitious creative collaborations take place in open-source co-edited projects like Wikipedia, where thousands co-create increasingly canonical content. Platforms like GitHub and GitLab facilitate similar codevelopment for software, while others like Hugging Face allow this for development of Generative Foundation Models (GFMs). This collaborative model leverages the collective intelligence of a global community, accelerating innovation and improving software quality through diverse inputs and perspectives.

  • Remote artistic collaborations: Artists and creators use platforms like Twitch, Patreon, and Discord (the primary collaborative platform we used to discuss this project) to collaborate on projects, share their creative process, and engage with audiences in real-time. These platforms enable artists to co-create with other artists and fans, breaking down the barriers between creator and audience and fostering a participatory culture around the creative process.

  • Educational collaborations: Online non-profit education platforms like Coursera, edX, and Khan Academy bring together educators and learners from across the globe. They support collaborative learning experiences, peer-to-peer feedback, and group projects, making education more accessible and fostering a global learning community.

  • Crowdsourced innovation: Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo enable entrepreneurs to collaborate with the public to fund and refine new products and projects. This model of collaboration invites input and support from a broad audience, validating ideas and ensuring they meet the needs and desires of potential users.

    As we move forward, the possibilities for collaborative innovation can increase in breadth and depth, thriving on the collective intelligence, diverse perspectives and unique contributions of larger (and even global) communities, redefining the boundaries of innovation, art, science, and education.

Creative collaboration tomorrow

At the boundaries of ⿻ practice we are already seeing a world where real-time global collaboration assisted by advance computational models become the norm, propelling the creative process to new heights of inclusivity and innovation. The story of the Herculaneum scrolls encapsulates the essence of collaborative innovation—bridging the past with the future, merging diverse expertise to illuminate the unknown. It serves as an emblematic beginning to our exploration, reminding us that at the heart of every great discovery lies the spirit of collaboration, a spirit that continues to drive humanity forward, beyond the limits of our imagination. Rather than exceptional, the Vesuvius Challenge and its winners trace a common pattern. Consider the 2009 Netflix Prize, which offered a million dollars to the team that could beat their internal movie recommendation algorithm by 10%. The prize competition dragged on for more than two and a half years and only succeeded in the end when the leading teams gave up working alone, but instead combined with diverse other teams and their diverse algorithms.[3] One might even use this conception to reimagine neural networks as social networks, simulating diversity and disputes between people with diverse perspectives. Arguably this simultaneous simulation of multiple perspectives is precisely what may account for their increasing dominance in a wide range of tasks.[4]

We are seeing the beginnings of this future in a diversity of emerging practices.

  • Synthetic instruments and generative art: The electronic musical forms that rose to prominence in the 1980s were grounded in the ability to synthesize a wide range of sound profiles electronically that in the past would have required elaborate instrumentation or have been impossible. Today we are seeing the seed of an even more radical revolution, as GFMs are increasingly being harnessed by artists to allow a far broader range of people to synthesize a dazzling array of experiences. For example, leading artists Holly Herndon, Mat Dryhurst and their collaborators have harnessed GFMs to allow them to sing in the voices of historical figures or others not present and to allow others to sing in their voices. Artist and musician Laurie Anderson has used a variety of models to produce texts that speak to contemporary problems with historical style and wisdom. A generation of "generative artists" have explored the intersecting creativity embedded in these models to draw out elements of the collective psyche. In a small way, in this project we have blended voice samples of many participants to create an audio version read in our common voice.
  • Cross-cultural collaboration: Where once language and cultural misunderstanding were central barriers to creative collaboration across widely varying contexts, GFMs are increasingly able to translate not just languages, but cultural styles, making fusions increasingly fruitful in music, film, and more.
  • Alien art: While GFMs can mimic and automate the way humans generate ideas, we could instead aspire to generate “alien intelligence” that takes our thought in directions humans are unlikely to identify, thus generating new fodder for collaboration across diversity.[5] For instance, Google DeepMind initially trained AlphaGo to mimic human strategies in playing Go games. Conversely, their next version, AlphaGo Zero, was trained solely against other model adversaries like itself, generating an unfamiliar and disconcerting yet effective “alien” strategy that surprised many master Go players. Research demonstrates that interacting with these diverse AI strategies has increased the novelty and diversity of the human Go-playing population [6]. If such approaches were applied to the cultural sphere rather than to games, we might find novel artistic forms emerging to inspire "awe" or resonance in alien machine intelligences, then feeding back to provoke new artistic forms among humans, just as the "encounter with the East" was critical to creating modern art in the West.
  • Digital twins and simulation for creative testing: Advanced simulations and digital twin technology will enable creative teams to test and refine their ideas in virtual replicas of real-world environments. With digital twins driven by GFMs that accurately mimics human behaviors, we could conduct in-silico social experiments at an unprecedented speed and scale. For instance, by deploying alternative news feed algorithms on in-silico social media platforms, where large language model (LLM) agents that mimic human social media users interact with one another, we can explore and test the impact of these alternative algorithms on macro-level social outcomes, such as conflicts and polarization.[7]

Tomorrow, we expect digital tools to unlock a symphony of minds, amplified and harmonized by GFMs and real-time high bandwidth remote synchronization. Yet, this is merely the prelude to a grand concerto of human and digital collaboration. As we wield these digital tools to broaden the space of creative collaboration, we will find ourselves in an ever-evolving dance, one where technology not only aids us but also reshapes our perspectives, fostering a rapid integration of diverse ideas and talents. We are not just witnessing the emergence of new creative processes; we are participating in the birth of a globally inclusive, multidisciplinary renaissance, one that promises to redefine the landscape of creativity and problem-solving for generations to come.

Frontiers of creative collaboration

The “symphony of minds,” assisted and amplified by technology, is poised to transcend beyond the mere exchange of ideas and creations to a realm where collective consciousness redefines creativity.

  • Telepathic creative exchanges: With advancements in post-symbolic communication, collaborators will be able to share ideas, visions, and creative impulses directly from mind to mind. This telepathic exchange will enable creators to bypass the limitations of language and physical expression, leading to a form of collaboration that is instantaneously empathetic and deeply intuitive.
  • Inter-specific collaborative projects: The expansion of communication technologies to include non-human perspectives will open new frontiers in creativity. Collaborations could extend to other intelligence species (e.g., dolphins, octopuses), incorporating their perceptions and experiences into the creative process. Such projects could lead to unprecedented forms of art and innovation, grounded in a more holistic understanding of our planet and its inhabitants.
  • Legacy and time-travel collaborations: With the creation of digital legacies and immersive experiences that allow for time travel within one's consciousness, future collaborators might engage not only with contemporaries but also with the minds of the past and future. This temporal collaboration could bring insights from different eras into conversation, enriching the creative process with a multitude of perspectives and wisdom accumulated across generations.
  • Collective creativity for global challenges: The challenges facing humanity will be met with a unified creative force, as collaborative platforms enable individuals worldwide to contribute their ideas and solutions. This collective creativity will be instrumental in addressing issues such as climate change, harnessing the power of diverse perspectives and innovative thinking to create sustainable and impactful solutions.

As we embark on this collaborative odyssey, humanity stands poised to redefine creativity itself. It is a future where creativity is not just a shared endeavor but a shared experience, connecting participants in a web of collective imagination and innovation. Yet, as we approach this crescendo of human potential—where the symphony of collaborative genius reaches its zenith—we also have to explore its ethical considerations and limitations.

Limits of creative collaboration

The future of creative collaborations, while pregnant with potential for novel collaboration paradigms, also has a range of limitations and ethical dilemmas. As we envision the zenith of creative synergy enabled by technologies that dissolve the barriers of distance, language, and even individual cognition, the shadow of potential dystopian outcomes looms large. Dave Eggers's classic The Circle highlights the dangers of constant creative sharing to erode the very sense of self that is the locus of creative genius. As we pursue increasing collaboration, we must constantly guard against:

  1. Loss of privacy and autonomy: In a future where every thought, idea, and creative impulse can be shared instantly, the sanctity of private thought is at risk. A society under constant surveillance and pressure to share every aspect of one's life parallels the potential for creative collaborations to become invasive, where the constant demand for openness stifles individual creativity and autonomy.
  2. Homogenization of creativity: As collaborative platforms become more sophisticated, there's a risk that the algorithms designed to enhance synergy could instead lead to a homogenization of ideas. This could dampen true innovation, as the unique perspectives and unconventional ideas are smoothed over in favor of consensus and algorithmic predictability. This highlights the urgency of exploring the designs of crowdsourced platforms and AIs that reward the exploration and connections of novel, heterogeneous ideas. For instance, crowdsourced innovation and co-creation processes could further be facilitated by AI that bridges existing ideas and communities that are less likely to be connected in the platform.[8]
  3. Over-reliance on technology: Future collaborations might lean heavily on technological interfaces and GFM-driven processes, potentially leading to a depreciation of human skills and intuition in the creative process. This over-reliance is at risk of creating a dependency on technology for social interaction and validation, raising concerns about the atrophy of traditional creative skills.
  4. Digital divide and inequality: In a society stratified by access to technology and information, the future of creative collaborations could exacerbate existing inequalities. Those with access to cutting-edge collaboration platforms will have a distinct advantage over those without, potentially widening the gap between the technological haves and have-nots, and monopolizing creativity within echelons of society that can afford such access.
  5. Manipulation, exploitation, and collapse: The potential for exploitation of creative content and ideas by corporate overreach is a significant concern. As creative collaborations increasingly occur within digital platforms owned by corporations, the risk of intellectual property being co-opted, monetized, or used for surveillance and manipulation grows, threatening the integrity of the creative process. By reducing the incentive for creativity, such traps risk killing the goose of creativity and diversity that lays the golden eggs of training GFMs in the first place.
  6. Erosion of cultural diversity: In a world where creative collaborations are mediated by global platforms, there's a risk that local cultural expressions and minority voices are overshadowed by dominant narratives. This could lead to a dilution of cultural diversity in creative outputs, ending in monolithic culture that neutralizes dissent and diversity.

In addressing these challenges, the future of creative collaboration must navigate the delicate balance between leveraging the immense potential of technology to enhance human creativity and ensuring that this does not come at the expense of privacy, autonomy, and cultural diversity. Central to this journey is the leveraging of open-source technologies and the principles of ⿻. Open-source platforms, by their very nature, encourage transparency and collective ownership, countering the risks of hidden monopolies and collusion that can arise in proprietary systems. These can be further augmented by many of the economic and governance models we highlight in what follows. Something that is already beginning to happen as leading ⿻ artists like Holly Herndon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and champion not only harnessing GFMs but also ensuring they are designed to attribute, celebrate and empower creators to live sustainably.

Furthermore, many of the risks of cultural homogenization arise from the encroachment of a single medium, with all its sensory limits, into a broader range of life. To preserve creativity, we must bolster the space for the even deeper intimate connections and reflection on which creativity depends. Luckily, this is precisely the role that the even-more-intimate technologies we discussed in the preceding chapters can play, ensuring that an endless stream of shared music and artistic mashups do not crowd out the deep relationships that are the foundation of physical and cultural reproduction.

  1. Stephen Parsons, C. Seth Parker, Christy Chapman, Mami Hayashida and W. Brent Seales, "EduceLab-Scrolls: Verifiable Recovery of Text from Herculaneum Papyri using X-ray CT" (2023) at Casey Handmer, "Reading Ancient Scrolls" August 5, 2023 at ↩︎

  2. Youssef Nader, "The Ink Detection Journey of the Vesuvius Challenge" February 6, 2024 at ↩︎

  3. Scott E. Page, The diversity bonus: How great teams pay off in the knowledge economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). ↩︎

  4. James Evans. “The case for alien AI,” TedxChicago2024, October 6th, 2023, ↩︎

  5. Jamshid Sourati and James Evans, “Complementary artificial intelligence designed to augment human discovery,” arXiv preprint arXiv:2207.00902 (2022), ↩︎

  6. Minkyu Shin, Jin Kim, Bas van Opheusden, and Thomas L. Griffiths, “Superhuman artificial intelligence can improve human decision-making by increasing novelty,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 120, no. 12 (2023): e2214840120, ↩︎

  7. Petter Törnberg, Diliara Valeeva, Justus Uitermark, and Christopher Bail. “Simulating social media using large language models to evaluate alternative news feed algorithms,” arXiv preprint arXiv:2310.05984 (2023), ↩︎

  8. Feng Shi and James Evans, “Surprising combinations of research contents and contexts are related to impact and emerge with scientific outsiders from distant disciplines,” Nature Communications 14, no. 1 (2023): 1641, ↩︎