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.

CATALYST: Meet the Team

A fitness tracker for online communities and conversations? What is CATALYST all about? Meet the team and discover why we are so passionate about it!

Online communities have been playing an increasingly important role in supporting grassroots initiatives in the area of social innovation and sustainability. However, as such platforms go larger and larger, it is more and more difficult for community managers to ensure efficient debates among citizens, i.e. to ensure collective ideation, decision and action.

Major community networks and leading research institutes have teamed up to tackle this issue with the support of the European Commission’s research funding programme. Over 2 years, through the CATALYST project, they will develop and test collective intelligence tools and make them available, as open source solutions, to any interested communities.

Use cases planned in the short term should demonstrate how CATALYST developments can boost local initiatives in the area of social innovation, increase awareness on new sustainable lifestyles, support eGovernance efforts of European cities and even empower citizens and the civil society in debating emerging issues for the new European Constitution.

Help us test CATALYST

We have partnered with the Wisdom Hackers community to test DebateHub, part of the CATALYST suite of open source tools. Join us in a collective ideation, discussion, and debate of ways to maintain the festival spirit, how to think outside the cubicle and activate the thinking body, and much more.

Music credit for CATALYST video: “Daybreak” by Baja Snake/HEPNOVA

The Analog Underground = Neo-Luddites?

The July 3rd issued of New York Magazine features an article about The Analog Underground, “[a] new generation of digital apostates rejects zeroes and ones in favor of celluloid, vinyl, ink, paper, and the click-clack-ding-slide of a typewriter.”  I came across the article rather serendipitously online in the course of some research I have been doing for various projects I am working on, including a proposal for a SXSW talk tentatively called “Declare Independence: DIY Design as Social Innovation Movement.”  I have been exploring the idea of expanding design literacy and the practice of “just making stuff” through education (both in the formal and autodidactic sense) as an inherent social and civic good.

The Analog Underground article got me thinking, and made some synaptic connections in my head that I am still trying to full grasp.  The author of the article, Ashlea Halpern, mentions the nostalgia as well as novelty value of anachronistic objects, which I totally get.  But she also labels this analog phenomenon a “neo-Luddite counterculture”.  I’m not sure if that label was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I really don’t think “Luddite” correctly captures the motivations behind this trend.

According to Wikipedia:

The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanized looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work and changing their way of life.

I don’t think the so-called analog underground is rebelling against industrial capitalism.  They aren’t embracing the nostalgic novelty of vintage analog gadgets because the new digital ones are threatening their craft or livelihood.  I think the motivations are more personal, and inward focused.  Maybe it’s just an aesthetic thing.  Many people, from hipsters to old money trustfunders have favored old or vintage things for a long time now.  But maybe there are deeper psychological and spiritual needs too.  A need for a more physical, tactile connection with our objects.  It reminds me of the New York Aquarium ad I have been seeing in the subway that has a picture of a girl petting a starfish and the line “no screen, just touch.”  Maybe in the age of touch screens, we just want to touch something real.  Something analog.  The physical and the analog have a kind of permanence that ethereal and ephemeral cloud-based applications do not.  And we can really own them, hack them, and personalize them.  We don’t really own the apps on our iPhone or any software as service apps we run.  Somehow perhaps, all of these motivations are a reaction against the increasingly black box nature of technology.  We can’t open things up and see how they work.  After the magic and the seduction of these new shiny digital black boxes fade, what is left?  Alienation from our devices?  A desire for the real?  I don’t know, but it’s something to think about.

Other manifestations of this broader cultural phenomenon include the popularity of sites like Etsy and the spread of the Maker Movement.

Slimwhitman’s comment on the article really resonated with me:

The analog will always be more a more complex code than the digital, which has to approximate its curves, where the nearly infinite realm is. Although that sounds like pop-metaphysics, all you have to do is recognize how the record industry collapsed, it made the analog compressible into any digital file system and degraded our relationship to music. We went from live music to analog waves made in vinyl and magnetic tape to essentially finite squares out of binary codes. In order for a computer to synch with a neural net, like a brain or group of brains, it will require waves that cannot make errors or be approximate. The digital will never be the sole entrancer of humans, and probably, we will have to eventually build analog computers to achieve anything of value in the post-PC age.

I think there really is something to that observation. I have been feeling the same way in my own creative practice as a musician, but Slimwhitman’s articulation of the issue really gelled things for me. While I have been making electro-acoustic music since I was a teenager, and digital tools will continue to be important to how I work, I have recently been immersing myself in the analog music world by playing acoustic instruments. Even the joys of playing the humble ukulele has a kind of humanity and expressiveness that is quite different, and in many ways more accesible and immediate for me, the player, than any of my complex high-tech music making gadgets.

I’m still waiting for the analog blogging platform though.  Until then, I’ll still be sticking to my iMac and WordPress.  😉

The Washington Post versus Gawker

Background story in a nutshell

  1. Washington Post writer Ian Shapira writes an article about business coach/’generational consultant’ Anne Loehr: Speaking to Generation Nexus: Guru Explains Gens X, Y, Boomer To One Another
  2. Gawker blogger Hamilton Nolan picks up the story: ‘Generational Consultant’ Holds America’s Fakest Job
  3. Shapira complains that Gawker stole his story: The Death of Journalism (Gawker Edition)

My take

Shapira’s claim that Gawker did not properly attribute him are unfounded.  The Gawker post links to the original article and to Loeher’s generational cheat sheet.  Hyperlinks are the footnotes and citations of our generation (as Loeher would probably say). I’m giving my advice for free: my generation thinks that generational business coaches are B$.  We live in a cut and paste culture; computers lower the barrier to making derivative works, as the next section of this post will demonstrate.  The subject of the original article was pretty ridiculous to begin with, as if it were tailor-made for Gawker fodder.  Gawker added value to the original with its snarky commentary. (Ms. Loeher, is snark a characteristic of my generation too?)

If Oscar Wilde were alive today, he would probably say, “the only thing worse than being blogged about is NOT being blogged about.”  While we are on aphorisms, let me give you some more free (useless) advice about my generation, courtesy of Descartes, updated for our times: Blogito ergo sum. “I blog, therefore I am.”

I don’t think Gawker is so much ruining journalism as Shapira claims as much as it is Maybe the WaPo should stick to actual news coverage and investigative reporting (after all, this is the newspaper that exposed the Watergate scandal, but “old media” can’t just rest on its past laurels).  “New media” like Gizmodo is going to give newspapers a run for their money in terms of business model.  Newspapers can either adapt their business models and learn to compete with the supposed “pirates” (“piracy is just another business model“), or they can fail.  They can revamp their content and delivery models, or they can streamline and specialize in what they do best.  But here’s a hint for being hip with the kids: complaining about the death of journalism is old news and kind of played out.

Or, in a move of desperation, they can throw down the gauntlet and start an Internet turf war like Shapira has done, which is actually a very Gawker-esque thing to do.  (What would Anne Loeher say about how that reflects on Shapira’s generational values?) It certainly has succeeded in getting people’s attention, but I hope this is not the sustainable business model the WaPo has in mind.

Continue reading The Washington Post versus Gawker