The creative brain

Your Future Depends on Your Creative Mind

Your future, and your children's future, depends on your being able to add value where computer software cannot. This means that you and your children need to be creative thinkers and, even more importantly, recognise the potential value of creative ideas. The biggest threat to your job and your working future is not outsourcing to China or India. It is not reckless bankers. It is not even idiot politicians (though they come close!) Rather, the biggest threat is innovative new technologies that can do ever more of the tasks that people like you do – but at significantly less cost.

A Brief History of Technological Advancement
For the past 200 years, technology has been replacing jobs. First, agricultural machinery allowed fewer people to complete more farming work in less time. This resulted in many workers losing jobs in the agricultural industry. However, they soon found new jobs in the factories that made agricultural equipment. Better still, they often earned better wages. This enabled them to buy more goods, which fed the economy, allowing factories to make more goods and provide more jobs.

Of course, technology also improved the efficiency of factories. Sophisticated machine tools allowed factories to turn out more products with less employee time required for each product. Fortunately, this boosted productivity, so factories continued to grow and employ workers, albeit they would be operating machines rather than manually assembling products. Moreover, the factories that made machine tools also needed employees. Thus technology did not destroy jobs – it just changed them.

As long as productivity generally grows along with technological development, this works just fine. Moreover, farm labourers and factory workers, even those with basic educations, can quickly be trained to operate new machines or perform new tasks in factories.

To put it in a nutshell, technology has been replacing jobs relentlessly for two centuries. However, this has not resulted in global unemployment, because that technology has increased productivity, creating new jobs and more income which buys products which keeps the factories profitable. It is a virtuous circle. However, this virtuous circle has depended on two things:

  1. The the jobs replaced by technology have not been intellectually demanding, so that labourers, who typically do not have higher educations, can quickly learn new tasks.

  2. That the rate of technological advancement does not remove jobs faster than increased productivity can replace them.

A Quick Note About Offshoring
When it comes to lost jobs in the manufacturing sector, there is a tendency to believe, in the West, that we a losing too many jobs to low wage countries such as China, Bangladesh and so on. While it is true that low labour costs in these countries has encouraged many business either to build factories there or to source products and components from such countries, the number of jobs actually lost to offshoring is trivial compared to those lost from technology. In a few generations, those offshore factories will be be like the most modern factories in Japan: almost devoid of human beings. Machines will do most of the work.

Software Is the New Technology
Until relatively recently, jobs have been taken over by mechanical devices: tractors, large farming machinery, production lines, machine tools, robots and so on. This trend is continuing. But another one is also growing: more and more jobs are being replaced by software. And these jobs are often intellectually demanding ones that require higher education, experience and specialised training.

Software that analyses huge databases and on-line resources can review far more information than can human beings and increasingly sophisticated algorithms can even identify trends and generate recommendations. What once required a highly trained and knowledgeable consultant days or weeks to complete can often now be performed by computers in hours or even minutes.

For instance, legal discovery software can scan far more case law and legislation than can experienced paralegals. More importantly, it can identify relevant laws and cases and compile everything into a nifty report. Automated accounting software can replace innumerable accountants crunching numbers. Moreover, the software does the work far faster and makes fewer mistakes.

The combination of highly sophisticated software, masses of data on various networks and ever more powerful computer processors will only increase this trend. Pattern recognition software, will allow computers to perform even more tasks that once required humans.

There Is No Turning Back
Doubtless, many people would like to see this progress stop or even have it rolled backwards. But what would they have the world do? Would they make technological advancement illegal? Would they put in place laws that require companies to hire humans to do work less efficiently and more expensively than technology?

Let us face facts: this is not going to happen. If the USA, for instance, were to outlaw replacing jobs with humans, business’s operational costs would sky-rocket, making their products more expensive than those produced in other countries. As a result, Americans would either buy imports or be obliged to buy very expensive American products. This would not help the country’s massive budget deficit. It would also kill technological innovation. Is that something we want? I doubt it.

As for rolling back technology, I can only ask how far. Shall we go back to the 1950s when factory workers in the USA and Europe were relatively highly paid? Shall we make it illegal for businesses to use robots, sophisticated production equipment, computerised design software and all subsequent technological innovation? Would consumers be willing to pay more for the less sophisticated products that would result from such an action?

Should we mandate how many people must work in every factory, even if that will vastly increase the cost and reduce the quantity of goods made in those factories?

Should we bring textile jobs from Bangladesh back to Europe, putting the Bangladeshi workers out of jobs and ensuring that even a pair of cheap bluejeans cost nearly as much as designer trousers made in Italy?

On first sight, some of these proposals might seem attractive, but reversing technological progress will also reverse productivity. That means people will not be able to buy as many nice things as they can do now. That, in turn, will mean less money in the economy which will cost us jobs. In short, going backwards is not a solution. And it is certainly not innovative!

The Times They Are A Changin’
Like it or not, these changes are happening. Moreover, global economics is a complex beast. We cannot undo these changes nor legislate against them unless we want to see innovation and jobs go to other countries that embrace innovation, even if it threatens jobs.

For the foreseeable future, there are a few things computers cannot do very well. One of these is to recognise creative ideas. Do note, however, that computers can generate ideas. This is so easy, even I could make a program to do it – and I am not a programmer (though I have taught myself programming). However, and fortunately for us humans, computers cannot identify which ideas are truly creative and which are nonsense. So most computerised idea generation programmes just spew out a lot of silly ideas, possibly with a few good ones hidden among them.

This ability to generate and analyse creative ideas separates us from machines for the time being. Thus, although software can review case law, and find relevant legislation far faster than can a human, we still need a creative lawyer to weave that information into a compelling story in order to make an argument before a judge and jury. And only a creative lawyer can read the expressions and gestures of the judge and jury in order to change her argument to suit changing moods in the courthouse. For instance, if jury members are looking bored, the lawyer might change the tone of her voice or jump ahead to a compelling point in order to regain the jury’s attention.

Likewise, accounting and financial software can do much of the work that once required humans. But ultimately, creative accountants and financial experts are needed to interpret those numbers in order to make decisions about how to manage budget, taxes, investments and other factors.

Indeed, this is one other key thing computer software cannot yet do, and is unlikely to be able to do for some time: make major decisions and take responsibility for them. Creative senior managers will be needed to interpret a growing mountain of computer generated reports, consider ideas, use their insight and make decisions that keep their companies ahead of their competitors.

What This Means to You
The ability to be creative and, more importantly, to recognise creative ideas is something computers will not be able to do for the foreseeable future. So, you should hone your creative skills as much as you can. More importantly, if you have young children, do all that you can to encourage and promote creative thinking in them. Sadly, as your children grow older, schools and employers will discourage creativity in favour of teaching analytical skills. Analytical skills are important, of course, but as we have seen, computers are increasingly better than us humans at many analytical tasks. And computers will continue to improve – very possibly at an ever faster pace!

If you are responsible for a company, on the other hand, you want to ensure that you are hiring the most creative people you can find as well as ensure you retain and encourage them. As more and more of your business processes are being managed by machines, you will need creativity to retain your competitive edge. And that creativity will have to come from your employees or contractors for some time to come.

Where Is It All Going?
My personal belief, which is controversial, is that in two or three generations, capitalism will need to change in a very fundamental way, perhaps paving the road for a new kind of economy. Computers will be able to produce all that we need to live – making humans largely unessential to the economy. Once there is no need for people to work and machines can produce anything we need, money could easily become obsolete. Perhaps people will no longer have to work, unless they want to do so. Surely, creative thinkers such as scientists, artist, writers and musicians will want to work even if they do not need to in order to live well.

What do you think?

This article reflects thoughts I have been developing for a long time now. However, writing it was inspired by the article cited below – and some of the examples I’ve used come from the article.

“Difference Engine: Luddite legacy” (4 November 2011) The Economist,

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

© 2007 Bwiti bvba ~
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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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