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Creating With The Machines

2013 April 21

The Luddites were a group of expert weavers in the 19th century who, upon seeing that the invention of the factory loom had made their skills obsolete, smashed the machines in protest.  Ever since, “luddite” has become a disparaging term for those who fear technological advance.

As I wrote previously in Forbes, we’re all Luddites now, at least in the sense that many of the hard won skills that we’ve come to depend on for income and social status are now being automated.

MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have argued that the solution is to learn to “race with the machines;” to become less like the mythical John Henry struggling to outdo a steam hammer and more like an Indy car driver, using technology to race at incredible speed.  If so, we will need to not only redefine work, but ourselves as well.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

In How to Create a Mind, technologist Ray Kurzweil makes the apt observation that creative genius stems from the ability to compose metaphors.

From Darwin’s transference of geological concepts to the biological realm to Einstein’s thought experiments to Shakespearean sonnets, the ability to see important connections between vastly different contexts has driven civilization forward.

Metaphor is also a powerful force in the business world. When Steve Jobs looked at MP3 players, he didn’t see a particular combination of hardware and software protocols, but “1000 songs in my pocket.”  That simple concept became the iPod, and its success led to the greatest turnaround in corporate history.

The ability to create metaphor is something that we’ve come to consider uniquely human. We are not, after all, calculating machines, but creative ones.  As Immanuel Kant argued long ago, the essential human trait is dignity, the right to create out of our life what we intend, rather than what we are directed to.

And that’s what’s so disturbing about the rise of the machines.  Computers are now learning to create as well, from music, to books to Haiku.  If we are to learn to race with the machines, it is not so much technology that we need to understand, but the creative act itself.

Recognizing Patterns

We have standard ways to describe particular creative talents.  A great musician is said to have “perfect pitch” while a talented visual artist is praised for having a “good eye.”  This ability to recognize patterns is critical to the act of creation.

When we begin to develop as infants, we first learn very simple patterns, such as as lines and colors. As we mature, we learn to combine these into shapes and symbols, (i.e. letters and numbers) and develop the ability to combine strings of symbols into writing and calculation.   We then learn to weave those patterns into higher-level concepts.

Eventually, the patterns we acquire evolve into value distinctions of profession and culture. Our life’s work becomes embedded into our knowledge of specific high-order patterns that are native to our chosen field of endeavor.

At some point we come to regard the ability to recognize those patterns, in ourselves and others, as a skill; a mark of both quality and of inclusion to a particular tribe, such as trade specialists, artists, marketers, doctors, finance professionals and so on.

Tangling Hierarchies

Familiarity with patterns, however, does not result in a creative act.  It is only a prerequisite.  Creativity occurs when we combine an aspect of one particular hierarchy of patterns with an element from another.  Douglas Hofstadter called these strange loops and they often happen in the waking hours, when our brains’ alpha waves are at their peak.

Kurzweil estimates that our minds are capable of holding 100,000 patterns and technological advances throughout history have allowed us to augment our abilities by outsourcing them.  From writing to printing, slide rules to hand calculators, we have limited our need to retain low-order skills and freed up our cognitive energies for higher-order ones.

We now outsource complex information to the cloud and no longer need to remember things like directions or recipes, because we can access them in seconds, wherever and whenever we need them.  Supercomputers like IBM’s Watson are beginning to master patterns, such as those inherent to law, medicine and finance, that today pass for highly specialized knowledge.

Our machines are learning to take over much of what we value in ourselves and we will have to learn to adjust.

Destructive Creation

As Joseph Schumpeter pointed out over half a century ago, truly substantial creative acts also destroy by replacing what came before them.  This wasn’t a mere observation, but a crucial insight into how innovation produces prosperity.

In a similar vein, Dee Hock, the legendary founder of the Visa credit card and a creative destructor in his own right, had this to say about creativity:

The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a room packed with archaic furniture. You must get the old furniture of what you know, think, and believe out before anything new can get in. Make an empty space in any corner of your mind, and creativity will instantly fill it.

That’s all well and good, but if you were a skilled weaver in the early 19th century or, for that matter, an educated professional today, the notion is far from comforting.  The idea that capabilities that you have spent your life developing have become “archaic furniture” is not one you welcome.  It’s enough to make anyone want to reach for the nearest sledgehammer.

Nevertheless, that is the situation that we find ourselves in.  Our professional skills are becoming obsolete and the old order of things is rapidly dying away.  Our ability to survive will be determined by how fast we can build a new skills to replace them.

The Passion Economy

It is a matter of historical fact that Steve Jobs created the iPod and the method in which he chose to do so is well documented.  What is not much discussed is why he ever wanted to.

The answer is simple (and also very well documented).  Steve Jobs loved music and wanted to make a device for others who loved it too.  He didn’t hire consultants or commission market research, (in fact, he famously eschewed them), nor did he analyze the technical specifications of existing products.  He just thought MP3 players were “sucky” and that annoyed him.

And that is the key to racing with machines.  We are subtly moving from a skills economy to a passion economy, where the primary function of organizations is not to direct work, but to focus passion and purpose.  Formal legal entities, while still important, will be subservient to communities of meaning, which will transcend barriers of formalism.

Indy racecars, after all, have steering wheels for a reason.  Nobody would pay to see hunks of metal run hurtle around a track if people weren’t driving them. It is not pistons or spark plugs that we cheer on, but shared intent.

And so, we now face the same dilemma as the Luddites of centuries past. While we cling to our soon-to-be-antiquated skills, the future of economic value will not reside in work as we now know it (much of which will be automated), but in our ability to connect with communities of people that share our purpose.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. April 22, 2013

    Great insights shared in this post. Especially agree with your assessment of a “Passion Economy” and your Indie race car comparisons. Our team has seen these ideas in motion, as well. It is an exciting time for new ideas and approaches.

  2. April 22, 2013

    Glad to hear it Stacy!

    – Greg

  3. April 27, 2013

    Greg, this is really an awesome summary of thoughts about innovation.

    Those which offer insight into HOW TO DO IT are the most powerful. For example, metaphor is an awesome tool to breaking through barriers to innovation and creativity.

    On the other hand, while it is true that the result of true innovation is “creative destruction”, I don’t think it is a good metaphor to start the process. When one starts the creative process by looking for something to destroy, the result is iterative and short-lived. Too often I think the term”creative destruction” is used to rationalize mediocre ideas rather than inspire great ones.

    Katherine Warman Kern

  4. April 27, 2013

    Thanks Katherine,

    I think that creative destruction is a term that has lost its original purpose. What began as an important economical concept (it resolved the “contradiction” of classical economics) has become a justification for actions which are sometimes misguided.

    However, I do think that sometimes “emptying out the attic” is a useful technique to spur imagination. Like many things, it’s not the concept itself that’s a problem, but the purpose it is put towards.

    – Greg

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