How Human Creativity Will Win The War Against Robots

May 11, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of supercomputer Deep Blue’s victory over world champion chess player Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue’s victory was the first time a computer beat a human chess master in a standard match format.

Technology has advanced dramatically since 1997,  and so have anxieties about artificial intelligence and the possibility of automated bots taking over human jobs. Some estimate that by 2025, up to 40% of jobs could go to robots. If machines can do our jobs better, what does our future at work look like?

Workers in almost every field will be affected in some way by automation. Machines are better than humans at repetitive, brute force tasks, and can now even beat humans in well-defined games like chess and Go. They could replace workers in service industries and administrative positions, and even have some management capabilities. But for innovators who are tasked with problem solving and imagining the future, human curiosity and playfulness will always have the advantage.

Robots cannot kill human ingenuity

Take this recent scene at a Fortune 500 company where I worked. Senior level executives gathered on the floor of a cleared out conference room like preschoolers at recess. Recycled cardboard boxes, colorful shards of construction paper, gnarled pipe-cleaners, scented markers, and hot glue were peppered around the room. The participants huddled with their teammates around their prototypes and put the pieces in place, building thoughtfully as they work together.

In the non-profit and public sector,  design thinking—which often looks like structured, open-ended play—has become a popular vehicle for creative problem solving and innovation.

Major corporations like Procter & Gamble have used design thinking to create new product lines that have turned around struggling brands like Mr. Clean. Design thinking is no longer considered just a marketing tool. The United Nations has also used it to redesign informal sustainable development settlements, like remaking a football pitch in Kenya. Design thinking is now taught in places like the business school at Cornell, and it even has its own department at Stanford. It allows for real-time improvisation and engagement that makes things work.

In the real-life training session I described, an internal knowledge management software project was running late and over-budget. It was not clear if the work in progress really addressed the needs of the employees who would be using the tool.

The executives hit “pause” and “reset” on the project. They started from the beginning, using empathy as a tool. Through interviews and observations, they tried to understand their colleagues’ knowledge management needs. From there, they formulated a problem statement, reframing the original problem as needed.

A playful prototype for a new corporate knowledge management system

If you look beyond the low-fidelity arts and craft aesthetics, the methodology that we teach is not that different from the scientific method: understand, hypothesize, test, rinse, and repeat until we get it right. Our approach goes beyond problem-solving and also works to cultivate a creative culture through a designer’s mindset.

This mindset begins with empathy for the needs of our fellow humans. It is open to a diversity of viewpoints and professional disciplines. It withholds judgement when it is time to ideate, and relies on evidence to make decisions about what works. This requires skilled facilitators who have built intuition through experience. This intuition helps us determine when to foster open-ended play, and when to switch to a more analytical, critical mode of thinking.

While computer artificial intelligence can help us optimize systems and processes, and even replace humans in many job functions, machines cannot yet have that intuition, nor the ability to empathize, reframe problems and truly innovate.

Technological innovation is attempting to bridge this gap.  Last year, researchers reported that Google Translate had developed its own meta language to translate between languages it had not previously been trained to engage. In other words, in a vaguely frightening, sci-fi-like development, computers can now at-least partially program themselves, and their human masters don’t fully understand what is happening. But optimization is not the same as innovation. While Google Translate can make it easier to communicate in different languages, communicating beyond the language barrier is still distinctly human. Humans will always win on gestures, making mistakes, humor, and how that all feeds into human connection.

There may be a day when robots learn to brainstorm, play, and innovate, and therefore deliver an unfair advantage to human beings. But for now, humans corner the market on playful and divergent thinking—the kind that breaks through barriers and sparks new ideas.  The robots may be coming for our jobs, but it is too early to call checkmate on human ingenuity.

Lee-Sean Huang is a designer, educator, and futurist based in New York City. He is a co-founder of Foossa, a service design and storytelling consultancy and a participant of the Allies Reaching for Community Health Equity (ARCHE) Public Voices Fellowship with The OpEd Project. He also teaches design and futures thinking at the Parsons School of Design.

The Big Data Society


ICYMI: Here is the video of my conversation at the Center for Global Policy Solutions Future of Wealth conference last week in DC. I had a conversation with Mary Madden from Data & Society Research Institute and Taylor Moore from the Center for Democracy & Technology about the opportunities and challenges of Big Data and algorithms. This is meant for a general audience, so no technical knowledge required. Our session starts at the 1 hour 53 minute mark.

Imaginary Islands, Cybernetic Cannibals, and NEO TRIBES

My latest thoughts on community building, republished from Medium

Founding Myths

I was born on the island of Taiwan, and I currently reside on the island of Manhattan. Both are terra firma, hard and fast granite bedrock.

But I also inhabit imaginary islands: online groups, forums, and other virtual places which bring to mind the dated term, “cyberspace.” Here I commune with like-minded souls with shared interests.

Other imaginary islands exist in the physical realm, but they are ethereal and fleeting in time. Festivals and conferences bring together communities of shared interest for a set period of time. Then we disperse. We may reconvene after an interval or fork forever into smaller cells distributed around the world.

My fellow humans on these imaginary islands are neotribalists. We equally reject the rigidity of traditional tribalism as well as the isolation of industrial individualism.

We form imaginary islands as safe spaces for our freak flags to fly free. Imaginary islands are unbounded by physical distance, as we unite with others of mutual interest and shared spirit across geographies. We form archipelagos of fellowship across expanses. Our imaginary islands can be open to everyone or hidden to all but insiders.

The Truku (also known as the Taroko) people of Taiwan have a saying, “the land is blood, the mountain is home.” The Hawaiians have a related saying, “He ali’i ka ‘āina, he kauā ke kanaka.” The land is a chief; man is its servant. These sayings reflect the indigenous worldview where the land owns the people and not the other way around.

But what happens when the “land” that we inhabit is virtual? What happens when we inhabit imaginary islands, shifting cartographies made up of networks andrhizomes in perpetual flux? We craft our communities, our imaginary islands, with intention. How do we belong to these artificial lands. How do our imaginary islands shape us and own us?

Tupi, or Not Tupi

To answer these questions, we will need new stories, new myths, and new truths. We need new stars to guide our way and to connect the far-flung archipelagos of our imaginary islands. We will need to construct new chimera: new combinations and reconfigurations, new ways of doing and of being.

We the neotribers, the inhabitants of imaginary islands, are like cybernetic cannibals, in the spirit of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto (Manifesto antropofágico).

We adapt, appropriate, and remix from a variety of cultural sources. One of the iconic lines of Andrade’s manifesto is “Tupi, or not to Tupi,” a linguistic pun that brings together references Shakespeare and to the Tupi indigenous peoples of Brazil.

In a discussion of cybernetic cannibalism, Lawrence Lessig explains:

we could describe it using modern computer terminology as kind of read-write culture. It’s a culture where people participate in the creation and in the re-creation of their culture. In that sense is read-write.

In this sense, as we are reading and writing our culture, we are terraforming the imaginary islands that we inhabit.

Lessig’s idea of a read-write culture echoes Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture:

For the moment, let’s define participatory culture as one:

1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

May the neotribes that we form aspire to be participatory cultures.

Dreamers and Doers

As neotribers, let us dream big but also stay rooted in pragmatism.

Bruce Lee taught us: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

This teaching echoes the motto Wakon-yōsai (和魂洋才 “Japanese spirit and Western techniques”) from Meiji-era Japan. The island nation had just emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation. It found itself vulnerable to Western colonialist powers with superior technology. The motto was an invocation to adopt new methodologies and new technologies while preserving a spirit that was authentic and grounded in “Japaneseness.”

Of course, there are many ways to critique and deconstruct notions of cultural authenticity, but the point I am trying to make is, how do we adopt or create new technologies and new ways of organizing ourselves that reflect the spirit to which we aspire?

The recently-departed activist Grace Lee-Boggs reminds us: “We need to grow our souls.” Activism and philosophy must work together in tandem.

Warnings

Back in 1977, Marshall McLuhan warned of the violent tribalism of the global village. He derided this tribalism for being “collective and without any individual consciousness.” But we have also seen that individualism taken to an extreme can lead to loneliness and alienation. May neotribes find a middle way in between these extremes.

We can learn from the new nationalisms like the Scottish and Catalan sovereignty movements. While they reject the status quo of the nation states in which they are currently a part, they simultaneously embrace a united Europe and membership in a larger international community. These are nationalisms with more open access to identity and belonging. They eschew the old violent tribalism of blood and soil. Neotribes aspire to be both grounded in the local and connected to the global.

We acknowledge that our blood is mixed, are cultures are mixed. Our destinies are intertwined.

When talking about neotribes, we must be careful not to fall into the old traps of neo-colonial “primitivism.” None of that “noble savage” narrative here please. We must learn to incorporate without (mis)appropriating. We must decolonize and deconstruct ourselves first in order to build something new. We must first empty our cups.

By imaginary islands, I mean “of the imagination.” We are communities of shared interest who dare to dream, who dare to explore, who dare to imagine what might be possible. We must be careful not to allow our imaginary islands to become pure escapism. We must also engage with other communities and tribes outside of our own, to negotiate the global commons and the other shared spaces of our common humanity.

In the Polynesian legends of the Māori of New Zealand and the of native Hawaiians, the ancestral homeland is called Hawaiki. Some anthropologists think that Hawaiki refers to Taiwan. But the truth about Hawaiki is lost to history and immortalized in myth.

In other legends, Hawaiki is also the underworld or the world of the spirits. In other words, Hawaiki is an imaginary island, a utopia, a “no place,” an imagined place. A destination always a bit past the threshold and out of reach, but a perpetually in our hearts and minds.

Our imaginary islands, the homelands of our neotribes, are like Hawaiki. We belong to these islands, and we belong to each other.

Learn more about Neotribes here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. What do “community” and “neotribes” mean to you?

Future of the Sharing Economy

Here is an audio recording of last night’s Future of the ‪Sharing Economy‬ panel organized by Be Social Change at What If Innovation with Airbnb NYC, Sailo, MILES, Meetup, and Foossa (that’s me):

Future of the Sharing Economy Panel – 22 September 2015
Organized by Be Social Change

Special thanks to our hosts ?What If! Innovation and to sponsors Airbnb, Runa, Kopali Chocolates, and Edward and Sons

From cars and music to accommodations and staffing, it’s never been easier for anyone with an excess capacity of goods and services to maximize their resources through collaborative consumption. Commonly referred to as The Sharing Economy, these transactions minimize waste and environmental impact, save costs, cut down barriers to entry, and increase productivity in a mutual give-and-receive exchange.

Expected to grow from $15 billion to $335 billion in revenue from 2013 to 2025, The Sharing Economy is positioned to disrupt traditional renting sectors like automotive and hotels. This potential for growth has attracted entrepreneurs and corporations alike, but how does it trickle down and increase opportunities and returns for individuals at every level of the exchange? And when are words like “community” and “sharing” disguising purely profit-driven transactions, a strategy coined as ‘WeWashing’?

With thought leaders from across the sector, this panel discussion will delve into the opportunities and challenges that come with collective collaboration. We’ll highlight the distinction between the Access Economy – where consumers are primarily interested in low costs and convenience – and an authentic Sharing Economy, rooted in trust and the strengthening of communities, and explore when, how, and if The Sharing Economy can be a source of empowerment.

Moderator:
Marcos Salazar, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Be Social Change

Panelists:
Melissa O’Young, Head of NY Community, Airbnb
Delphine Braas, Cofounder, Marketing & Business Development, Sailo
Odile Beniflah, Head of International, Meetup
Eric Ho, Founder, miLES
Lee-Sean Huang, Co-Founder / Creative Director, Foossa

Reference:
#WeWashing: When “Sharing” Is Renting and “Community” Is a Commodity
Monetizing Neighborliness
ShareStories.net: One Month in the Sharing Economy

A Bronx Tech Tale

Innovation in tech education and job creation from the birthplace of hip hop

Exit the subway. Walk by a check cashing service and under a freeway overpass, past some guys chatting on a stoop at three in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Across the street there is a hot dog factory and downstairs a methadone clinic. The business people and civil servants in crisp suits that I have been trailing to our destination look out of place here.

I’m in the South Bronx attending the grand opening celebration of the Urban Development Center, or UDC for short, a partnership between software consulting firm Doran Jones and workforce development non-profit Per Scholas. Doran Jones provides software engineering and testing services to major financial and media companies. Per Scholas is a 24-year-old educational non-profit focused on providing tuition-free training to prepare its graduates for jobs in the tech industry. The UDC is part of a movement to “reshore” tech jobs that have been offshored to places like India back to the United States.

Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, kicks off the grand opening of the Urban Development Center.

Plinio Ayala

The UDC is in full-on party mode today, but on a previous visit, I could see the team in action on a typical work day. With an open floor plan, bright cheery colors, the flickering of computer screens and the tapping of keyboards, the vibe here feels a lot like many other tech companies. There are not yet any motivational posters on the walls nor a foosball table in the lounge, some of the typical trappings of a tech startup, but give it time, as they have just recently moved into the newly-renovated space.

Other elements are starkly different. Diversity is one of them. Almost all of the employees come from minority groups underrepresented in the tech industry. More than half of the employees are women. Most of them have come through Per Scholas’ workforce development training courses. These training courses attract a wide array of people, ranging from young people without college degrees looking for job opportunities beyond service and retail, to older career changers, to the long term unemployed.

We are also in one of the poorest congressional districts in America. It is a community lacking in opportunity, but certainly not lacking in creativity, determination, and grit. This is the birthplace of hip hop after all.

Tristan Delgado, software tester at the UDC

Tristan Delgado

I meet the upbeat and confident Tristan Delgado, a 26-year-old Per Scholas grad who is currently working at the UDC as a software tester for Doran Jones.

I’m thriving in a real career that I never before knew existed. I love being a software tester. I’ve been exposed to so many different types of technology and software. I even do games testing on the side as well. That’s been pretty sick….As soon as I got into this field, I was able to actually start affording – you know – living. These are livable wages. Before I came into software testing, I looked forward to a 25 cent raise in my check. That’s how gritty it was.

But Tristan is still plenty gritty, if by “gritty” we mean “driven.” He commutes by bicycle 17 miles each way from his home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to the UDC in the South Bronx. Tristan had previously dropped out of community college but ended up completing two training courses with Per Scholas. He then worked with another tech company before coming back to take a job at the UDC.

Like Tristan, most of employees at the UDC are software testers. Software testing is a largely unknown and unseen part of the tech industry. This is the kind of tech work that is making sure that things like corporate intranets and our online banking apps work properly. It’s not sexy. It’s not disruptive. But it’s essential.

And it’s a tremendous market opportunity. At the UDC, Doran Jones is offering software testing talent to major corporations at rates that are competitive with the competition in India and with the added benefit of being just a 30-minute subway ride rather than 16-hour flight away. In addition to being in the same time zone, software testers at the UDC also bring the competitive advantage of native English proficiency and greater cultural proximity to their clients than the overseas competition. All of this matters for the precise and demanding problem-solving necessary for good software testing.

At full capacity, the UDC has space for 450 software testers and is rapidly building a client base to reach this capacity. As part of the partnership agreement, Doran Jones has agreed to fill at least 80% of these positions with Per Scholas graduates and will be sharing 25% of revenue with the non-profit. The innovation here is in the talent pipeline and the business model.

Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones

Matt Doran

At the opening ceremony, Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones, announces that an existing client wants to nearly double the number of testers that they want to hire at the UDC. The mood is jubilant and optimistic, but there is still much work to be done to convince more corporations to hire US-based talent for software testing.

Matt recently told Wired Magazine about a potential hedge fund client that turned down a proposal from Doran Jones because “our guys don’t look like the traditional consulting firm.” There is a lot of work to be done to convince potential clients and to shift cultural perceptions, but you can feel that change is happening, and Doran Jones and Per Scholas are driving it forward.

Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones

Keith Klain

“Cheers to all the determined people out there… No more excuses,” exclaims Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, as he gives the final toast to celebrate the opening of the UDC. This is the Bronx after all, known for its grit and determination. Just as when hip hop emerged here decades ago and changed the sound of music in the United States and worldwide, the movement that is emerging here has the potential to change the face of tech. No more excuses.

Olivia is a 14-year-old high school student collaborating with Doran Jones to build an app for her school

Olivia

This story has also been published in the Huffington Post.