The human – all too human – nature of innovation
by Charles-Edouard Bouée

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3d Waage entscheidung zwischen Liebe und Vernunft

A few days ago, the first artwork made by an artificial intelligence (AI) program sold at Christie’s for €380,000. Judging from the auction price and media attention the blurry portrait of a man received, the first thought for many was that machines have mastered yet one more skill. Not only can they lift heavy loads, drill holes and beat humans at cerebral games like chess and Go – they have now made an incursion into the human realm of imagination and creation.

It is true that machines will take over ever more tasks currently performed by humans, and they will fundamentally influence the way we think, work, and live. At this point, it appears we are only one step away from Picasso or Einstein being rendered redundant, possibly replaced by Artificial Intelligence

But the truth is that even though machines can create, when they do, it is a pale imitation of human creativity. Let me explain.

The power of human imagination

No matter how fast and far technology advances, machines will always lack the imagination, creativity and judgement of humans. Human imagination produces images and ideas without any immediate input of the senses (or data). Human creativity uses complex cognitive processes yet to be fully understood (and thus hard to imitate). And human judgement is nuanced, not binary.

Humans have always sought answers to their questions solutions to their problems. Creation and innovation are the outcomes of this age-old process, in which humans have excelled. Innovation, which can be defined as a purpose-oriented creation, has played a key role in human evolution and our survival as a species. From flint arrowheads to sophisticated algorithms, our “problem-solving” ability has been used to the benefit of humanity. But because it is human, innovation is not a completely positive, error-free dynamic.

Many innovations in our history share a common duality: they represent enormous potential advancement on one hand, yet yet could just as easily destroy humanity on the other. Think of technologies based on fossil fuels or nuclear energy. That is why we need to apply another human innovation : ethics.

AI is the same – except that, for the first time, a technology seems to be encroaching on what was hitherto considered humanity’s exclusive domain of intellectual thinking and, ultimately, creation and innovation. For many, AI is thus a “Faustian bargain”, giving access to great power to something that puts the whole of humanity at risk. And yes, killer robots could engage targets with no human intervention. Yes, intelligent algorithms have the power to destroy many jobs. But this take on the technology fails to understand the complex and very ambivalent nature of innovation.

Personal AI – coming to your smartphone soon

I believe that AI will not only alter production processes and transform businesses models, but even more fundamentally, it will augment our daily lives. Ten years hence, it will be natural for us to carry our own portable AI. Embedded in a smartphone (or other hardware form), using a private cloud to integrate all relevant information, it will rapidly build a deep understanding of who we are, enabling it to provide us with tightly personalized services. Personal AI will simplify our lives in unimaginable ways, as electricity did in its day. It will be a trusted adviser and protector of our personal data. It will offer services that we really want and not the ones that advertising makes us want. And it will relieve us from many time-consuming tasks like searching, organizing and buying. By handling the “doing part”, portable AI will bequeath us time to spend on things we like, or tasks which require more human intelligence and concentration. Innovation, for instance.

The impact of AI on innovation will thus be twofold. As a powerful tool to analyze data, it will give a huge impetus to science and R&D. And as our personal portable companion, it will give us additional time – time to use our imagination, our creativity and our judgement. It is precisely these qualities of human intelligence that we need to apply today. To ensure AI enhances innovation in the best way possible, it is important to frame the innovation process itself. Our challenge is to find the right balance between tasks performed by machines and those performed by humans; to make clear what part humans stay out of and what part they stay involved in to ensure that they still hold the reins in future.

Five points to tame AI

To find this balance, we need to put five points on our AI agenda.

  • First, promote its development. Like every successful technology, AI will thrive, mature and eventually become a commodity available to everyone. The faster this happens, the better.

  • Second, regulate its development. We need to define powerful regulatory bodies to ensure AI develops to the benefit of humanity, not for a handful of companies.

  • Third, accentuate the positive. The potential benefits of AI outweigh the risks by far, especially when we promote and regulate it well.

  • Fourth, be innovative. There will be lots of new inventions to be made and implemented, particularly products and services linked to portable AI.

  • And fifth, let’s call AI what it is supposed to be: human augmented intelligence. The term AI misleads by suggesting threatening scenarios of machine takeover and implying rivalry between artificial and human intelligence. On the contrary, the goal is that each should complement each other.

Innovation will always remain a human question. If we use our truly human skills and imagine, creatively design, judge, and implement the right environment, we can significantly alter the level of innovation. With the powerful help of machines, but as humans.

About the author:

Charles-Edouard Bouée, is CEO of Roland Berger, and author of Light Footprint Management: Leadership in Times of Change (Bloomsbury 2013) and Confucius et les Automates (Grasset, 2014)

This article is one in a series related to the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum, with the theme management. the human dimension, taking place on November 29 & 30, 2018 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF18

This article first appeared in LinkedIn Pulse

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