Is machine learning more powerful than lateral thinking?

Is brainstorming the preserve of human brains alone?

Some years ago, I had the privilege of running a two-day ideation workshop with Dr. Edward de Bono, author of the book Six Thinking Hats and originator of the term “lateral thinking.” As you may imagine, we spent many hours using thinking hats and other techniques to come up with ideas from people in the room. As many know, de Bono defined creativity as the lateral leap that happens during a brainstorming process. If I was able to time warp and repeat that session today, I would have had technology augment that session.

While brainstorming is crucial to creativity, should we still regard it as the preserve of human brains alone? Is lateral thinking by brainstorming in a room, now to be made “smart” by machine learning to supercharge the process?

One of our inspiring machine learning practitioners in India, Vishnu Makkapati, opened my eyes to the role that technology can play in the brainstorming process. He joined us from one of India’s most innovative clothing companies that uses machine learning to design t-shirts and other clothes – and apparently these outsell those that are simply ”created” by people alone in the traditional way. The software takes a few points of reference and then goes through various iterations of cuts and patterns in a lateral process until it finally ends up with a product that is popular with customers. Design companies are also taking the same approach with logos; I have seen some compelling logo designs that were invented by algorithms.

Powering human creativity with machines

In a recent conversation I had with legendary, creative Graham Fink, now chief creative officer at This Place, he said: “When AI has creativity flowing through its chips, the world will fundamentally change beyond anything we’ve ever known.”

So, we are already seeing the top world’s most talented and awarded creatives embrace the combination of machine learning and creativity. So why isn’t more of the creative industry exploiting this technology to augment human lateral thinking and brainstorming processes?

I believe the answer to this question lies in the ”creativity myth” – the notion that life-changing ideas are the product of a few tortured souls sitting in the corner of a darkened room, firing ideas between each other until the early hours. While I am not suggesting for a second that all the great leaps will come from machine learning, in terms of getting a volume starter of later thoughts, why aren’t more people scraping the internet, so to speak, for idea generators? Imagine those same two in a room, with access to superfast thought starters?

There is no doubt, high-level creative thinking is very hard work. So why not use a technological tool that generates thought-starters for us, or enables us to leapfrog certain stages of the creative process so that we come up with better ideas, faster? Perhaps call it a “smarter brief” – where thought-starters are generated by machines.

We have the same opportunity with software to encourage us to do things that we may never have thought of doing before. In my role, for example, I am interested in whether my organization can automate the process of identifying the better questions that underpin our brand.

Undoubtedly, we need to be more open-minded about how we can apply technology to brand thinking if we are to generate better outcomes for our businesses in the future. So, here are my recommendations for how creative people can use technology to supercharge their powers:

Immerse yourself in the specific possibilities offered by different technological tools. You will only be able to understand what technology can do for you if you take the time to explore it. A couple of years ago at our EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year event, billionaire investor Mark Cuban said he spends four hours every day immersing himself in new technologies on the basis that he might come up with a new way of applying them within business.

Think about how the creative process within your organization can be augmented by technology. How can you speed up the early stages of idea generation? How can you bring a fresh perspective to persistent creative challenges? Where can you use technology to break down creative boundaries and stimulate blue-sky thinking?

Review the talent structure of your organization. Do you need to create new jobs within your organization in order to harness the full potential of technology – data scientist positions, for example? Or is it more a case of reskilling existing employees by providing them with training and exposing them to different working environments – such as putting them on secondment with a tech company?

Accept that the definition of “creativity” has moved on. Today, creativity is about far more than ads, acting, art, dance, movies, music and novels. The experience that is provided by a website, or on an app, is every bit as creative as that provided by a painting or a prima ballerina. We are all creative and technology can help each of us to be creative in different ways.

Creative minds still hold the power

Technology is never going to evict us from the creative process altogether. Why? Firstly, because at this stage, technology can’t ask the questions, and questions are the start of any creative process. And the creative mind will continue to be the most capable of connecting new dots to form something unexpected. Imagine if with every brief a creative person had a random brainstorming from a machine to get to the basic ideas; what kind of leaps are possible then?

I cannot see a future where the imagination and origination of ideas replace brilliant minds. But I can see a future where the best creative minds tap the power of technology to augment how they get to and deliver new ideas, and keep transforming their world.

In what we call our ’robots experience’ – which illustrates how humans need to learn to co-exist with robotics – the future is all about harnessing technology to power human enterprise.

The future will belong to those that can lead teams of very disparate minds to produce the magic of the future. From the great Paul Arden, who wrote the book “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be,” his advice to me was surround yourself with amazing people. This advice seems ever more pertinent – only it won’t be just surrounding ourselves with people. It will now include machines.

This point is also echoed by historian and novelist Yuval Noah Harari, who said at our Innovation Realized event: "It is the first time in human history that we will be augmented by technology, not biology."

Isn’t it time for the best creative minds to be augmented with technology to supercharge their creative powers – to generate world-changing, smart experiences?

John Rudaizky is global brand and marketing leader, EY. He tweets on @johnrudaizky.

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