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Rise of the (Creative) Machines

Every leader and entrepreneur should understand why the pace of creativity accelerates and how fast it will get with creative machines

From the first human-made artifact till the invention of agriculture, in the period of approximately 3,290,000 years, we humans and our predecessors could produce only a handful of innovations. The number of artifacts is so few that you can easily fit the complete catalog of a human invention into one sentence.

“In the course of 3,290,000 years, hominids and members of genus homo invented stone tools, methods for controlling fire, hearths, cooking, boats, complex language, glue, pigments, spears, clothing, beads, burial, harpoons, sewing needle, bone tools, tally sticks, cremation, cave paintings, mortar and pestle, weaving, flute, rope, pottery, bullroarer, bread, dentistry, constructed stone monuments and agriculture.”

The pace of innovation was so slow that the idea of change through innovation was most likely not relevant to most generations. The thought of progress would have been unimaginable. For example, one of our predecessors, Homo Erectus, used the same tools for over 40,000 generations. Today we have a name for species that used the same technology for ages: extinct.

Fast forward to 2020. An unprecedented but not unexpected pandemic hit us. In months rather than years, humankind was able to produce a vaccine collectively. And not just one vaccine, but 66 of them. And by the end of the year, the first two were approved by the FDA for mass use.

Although we can name people who made the discoveries, it is foremost important to look at the pace. Why is the speed of innovation so fast? As I argue in my book Zero Latency, we have neglected the collective and foremost systemic nature of creativity in our affection for creative geniuses. Yes, we possess the ability to be creative on an individual level, but it would be absurd to suggest we are creative in a vacuum. We are inseparable from the creative system we inhabit. The system determines the limits of our creative abilities. And when our system turns its attention to a particular problem, it is fast and effective (of course within the limits of our systemic level).

It is not a new idea to suggest that the pace of innovation and creativity is accelerating. But instead of focusing on the speed, we should focus on the undermining systemic changes we are experiencing as we speak. Every leader and entrepreneur should understand why the pace of creativity accelerates and how fast it will become.

Let us consider another example to illustrate the change. I wanted to test the pace of the creative system I call the idea market. (I coined the term to describe the collective pool of ideas, artifacts and resources, in the physical, digital, and mental realms) I wanted to get from initial idea to product launch as soon as possible. I was careful to choose a product category for my test. It had to be something I didn’t have any expertise in. I chose sneakers. So, how would you go about getting sneakers from idea to market as soon as possible? To make things a bit harder and test my original hypothesis about human creativity’s systemic nature, I restricted myself from using any creativity I may possess in the process.

I started with the name. To create a name, I opened namelix.com. Namelix promises to generate names for your brands. I only needed to fill in a few details of the brand name I wished to create, and right after accomplishing just that, the algorithm blurted out an infinite list of available company names. I must admit I spent a bit too much time choosing the name, but I was sincerely delighted when I found it. The name, put out by the machine, was Wacks.

Next, I needed a visual identity for Wacks, and looka.com promises to do just that. So I type in the brand name, select a few parameters, and again the machine feeds me with an endlessly scrollable list of ready-to-use visual presentations of the Wack brand identity. I chose one with a green pixelated sneaker as a logo on a pink background.

A sneaker brand does need a sneaker to sell, though, and this is where alibaba.com comes in handy. I dove in to find a manufacturer with a sneaker model that was in line with the brand name and visual identity machines created for me. It didn’t take a long time to find thousands of manufacturers who could provide a small batch of sneakers and even put the Wacks brand name and logo on the sneaker.

All the components were there: the name, the visuals, the sneaker, only one thing was missing: the eCommerce site for Wacks. From countless options, I chose shopify.com, and then it all was ready for taking Wack’s sneakers to the public.

The time from idea to market was under two hours and with no cost at this point at all.

Our predecessors used the same tools for forty thousand generations, and we can put a new brand on the market in under two hours. What has happened? The answer comes down to creative latency (another term I coined to describe the phenomenon). It has declined radically, mostly due to two factors: firstly, we have created a lot and not lost too much. So, we are — as some might say — standing on the shoulders of a giant. Secondly, the digitization of ideas and artifacts and our ability to operate in an unprecedented sizeable creative system has radically changed the game. To put it simply: we all have access to the resources required to create something, and once done, we don’t need permission to introduce our ideas and artifacts on the idea market.

If you read this article carefully, you’ll noticed that although I did not use my creativity when producing Wacks, I used others’ cumulative creativity, and more interestingly, creative machines. To answer the question I proposed above, how fast the pace of invention will get, we should not focus solely on humans but the idea market as a system that includes human and machine creativity.

(I will focus more on machine creativity in the forthcoming blog posts.) When resources are more equally distributed, more people can use them as raw material for their creativity. (By resources, I mean the complete spectrum from raw materials to API’s, algorithm and code libraries, and from money to information and skills of others) But when the resources are digitized, it means that in many cases, it is not only humans that can participate in the creation; machines are welcome too.

For anyone who makes business decisions or aims to create something, this change raises a few pressing questions.

  1. We must ask ourselves, is our current paradigm for innovation based on individuals or systems? The paradigm we have or choose is central to our innovation strategy. If we choose the system-paradigm, we must seek to find the sweet spot in that system to extract and create value.
  2. The second question is about the pace of innovation; how fast can we get our product or service from idea to the idea market? Faster is not always better, but the more iterations we can fit into a concise space of time should be.
  3. Do we have any projects or experiments going on where we involve AI in the process of creation? Whether it’ll be a more intelligent way of producing insight, to using generative models to create designs or recipes, it doesn’t matter, but do we have a path to include smart and creative machines into our innovation process.
  4. Suppose machines beat us in speed and explore the idea space more thoroughly. Are we confident we can win the machines in exploring the white spots in the existing product categories? (where a lot of data is available). We have our branch of creativity where we excel. Humans are at their best in creating new categories and working in-between domains. But within domains, it is hard to beat machines very soon.
  5. And here I go back to Wacks. If you Google Wacks or try to buy them, you notice they are not up for sale. There is a simple reason for that. If we live in a world where we can create almost anything, should we? More and more, the answer for me is no. Yes, I’m all for creativity and innovation. But should we apply more deliberate thinking to what we bring into the world? The world doesn’t need another nature resources consuming, carbon dioxide inducing piece of shit sneakers. As creatives and as innovators, we need to challenge ourselves. How can we use the resources we have access to create according to the idea I heard Neri Oxman voice: design should be for nature and with nature. To put it in more concrete terms: we should always think about nature as one of our customers.

Creativity is democratized, machines are invited, and the second era of exploration has begun.

That should be on the C-level agendas right now.

About the Author:

Henri Hyppönen is Finlabs Chief Innovation Officer and resident inspirational leader. At Finlabs, he leads innovation across the organization to push the limits of our team and to educate and enlighten clients on where to drive their business and products.

Henri speaks regularly about the future, business, leadership and creativity, and about the intersection of human and machine intelligence. He has published five books. The most recent (2020) on the future of creativity.

Henri inspires us every day at Finlabs with his ideas and insights. If you’d like to learn more from Henri and discover how Finlabs can work with you to build intelligent digital products to drive your businesses forward with purpose, drop us a line.

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