As legend has it, John Henry was a steel-driving man who defeated a steam-powered drill, before collapsing and dying with a hammer in his hand. The American folktale highlights the historic tug of war between humans and technology, with technology constantly encroaching on the turf of human tasks. First, technology went for our muscles. Now, with the current quandary around artificial intelligence and digital technologies, it is coming for our brains. Are we cornered or is there a safe retreat where we can keep the upper hand? We still have the space of mind, the powerful engine behind our cultural proliferation, driven by imagination, curiosity, and ingenuity. Indeed, human progress is driven by our capacity to imagine new, better worlds and channel our ingenuity towards these aspirations.
Drucker Forum 2021
The challenge of technologies
Across time and waves of technologies humans have faced, made sense of, and responded to technological advances by creating new things that reshape the world around us. Humans intuitively seek out patterns, learn and assign meaning in order to survive and even thrive. With language and abstract thought, we have been able to expand our intelligence from a biological instinct to an arsenal of artifacts, models, and tools that enable us to engage with an open future. This has opened up new technological frontiers across our evolutionary history.
Ways of thinking
Since the industrial revolution these creative propensities have manifested themselves into well established professional disciplines that represent distinctive ways of thinking and engaging with the world. This was spelled out in the “Bermuda Quadrilateral” that distinguished science, engineering, design and art as four unique ways to act upon the world as the creators of new things.1 Management is notably missing from the creative professions matrix. Indeed, management has largely been a regulative force, focused on the elimination and prevention of mistakes, and the institution of reliability and accountability.
Cycle of discovery
Equipped with the distinct frames and tools of their respective professions these four groups go about their tasks by following–explicitly or otherwise–a recursive cycle of discovery that is foundational to learning and the creation of new things (Figure 1). Within this cycle thinking is paramount in that it orients the agent in their engagement with the world. This comes down to setting premises (what we take for granted) and commitments (what we would like to change through our actions). In this sense, thinking is about determining what we see and deciding what we do. This gives us a glimpse into a kind of human intelligence that is distinguishable from artificial and other machine intelligence-the capacity to imagine things that do not yet exist and to reshape and form entirely new categories of meaning as gateways to possible new worlds.
The world is an amorphous whole to which we give meaning through the aspirations we have and the projects we pursue. The distinct thinking styles represented in science, engineering, design and art are indicative of the breadth of human intelligence, yet recursivity remains a common mechanism through which these creative professions put the human mind in a creative dance with the world.
Figure 1: Recursive Model of Discovery2
What role should AI play?
Moving for a moment beyond the human dimension, we can consider how artificial intelligence and digital technology can–and should–play a role in these processes of creative discovery. With the increasing ubiquity of digital devices, sensors and fast payment technologies, we now have the ability to monitor almost any activity with accuracy and speed.
According to a recent Economist article3, a new form of fast-paced “third wave” economics has emerged during the pandemic that involves three notable technology enabled advances. First, it draws upon data that is both abundant and directly relevant to countless real-world problems. Second, those using the data are keen to directly influence decision-making and policy as a result of their work. Finally, this new approach involves scant theory as practitioners favor letting information “speak for itself.” In other words, it is about making our models of the world responsive to the data they bring. This requires flexibility in thinking and the unleashing of our imagination in recognition of the open-ended nature of the future.
Shaping our future
With technology we now have the capacity to cycle through actions and outcomes with greater velocity than ever before, generating powerful data driven insights as high-octane fuel to shape human perceptions. This in turn sets the stage for human intelligence to be the direct benefactor of artificial intelligence and machine learning to amplify the imaginative and creative productivity of human sensemaking.
If you get it right, opportunities abound. Yet with AI and machine learning alone, and our minds asleep at the wheel, technology could become the master of our fate and potentially fuel the dystopian futures some fear. This means we must move from asking the question “if humans had machines …” to “if machines had humans …” as a way to stay on the right track.
We can become who we are
When data and AI are set up to feed into human intelligence, imagination, creativity and the framing of new meaning could be unleashed on an unprecedented scale. This means that the reimagining of the human-technological interface continues to forge ahead, creating the opportunity to put the human imperative front and center.
The human imperative is to become who we are.
1) John Maeda´s Bermuda Quadrilateral was based on the work of Rich Gold, as told in the latter´s book The Plentitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff, MIT Press, 2007.
2) The Reflective Entrepreneur, D. Dimov, 2017, Routledge Focus https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/oa-mono/10.4324/9781315228105/reflective-entrepreneur-dimo-dimov
3) The real-time revolution–Enter third-wave economics: How the pandemic reshaped the dismal science, Economist, October 23rd, 2021 edition.
About the Authors:
Joseph Pistrui is co-founder of Kinetic Thinking, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at IE University in Madrid, and a Strategic Learning Advisor to Emergn.
Dimo Dimov is co-founder of Kinetic Thinking, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at University of Bath in the UK, and author of two books on entrepreneurship.
This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Human Imperative” on November 10 + 17 (digital) and 18 + 19 (in person), 2021.