Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Will you shape innovation, or will it shape you?

 There's a famous quote about tools we use, which says that we first shape our tools, and then they shape us.  Meaning, I think, that we are natural creators, meant to solve problems, to create new things.  When we create new things, they become valuable and in demand, and to a great extent, at least initially, unattainable until produced in mass quantities.  Once attainable and proven useful, those tools change the way we live and work.  Thus, the tools we created and shaped will eventually change and shape the way we live and work.  If you doubt this is true, look no further than the iPhone.  What was an incredible innovation is now changing how we work and live.  And to some degree, creating new humans with more flexible and useful thumbs!

Through creativity and innovation, from the earliest origin of man, we have been creating and shaping tools - fire, sharpened sticks for tools and weapons, the wheel and thousands upon thousands of other tools and devices.  Now, we are surrounded by the evidence of centuries of innovation:  indoor air conditioning on a hot summer day.  Automobiles that can travel hundreds of miles on a single electrical charge.  The ability to sit and write a blog that others may read (or ignore) at their leisure.  And all of these tools and services are built on dozens of other innovations, that we all too casually accept and ignore.

The question I'd like pose today is:  when do we stop shaping innovation and when does it start shaping us?  One of my biggest concerns is that we are losing sight of the power of innovation, and its ability to constantly change (and often improve) our lives.  To a great extent, we are becoming complacent, waiting for others to change or improve or modify our lives, rather than dreaming up big ideas and developing them ourselves.  Too many times we've outsourced the development of ideas to others, waiting for them to take the risks, to scale the ideas, rather than get involved and participate in the learning, experimenting and yes, sometimes failing process.  This lack of larger engagement in innovation and creativity means that the development of interesting new products and services is left more and more to people who are willing to take risks, and those people, unfortunately, may include people who don't care about risk or who don't care about you.  Facebook, as an example, has proven to be an exceptionally valuable innovation that generates a lot of social interaction, for good and for bad, driven by Mark Zuckerberg, who, it seems, is happy to share your data with anyone for payment.  And Facebook is just one example.

When people become passive, and when we fail to innovate, we risk turning over innovation and creativity to people who don't have our best interests at heart, but more importantly we risk abdicating the act itself to others, and eventually to machines.  While I recognize that this sounds futuristic, good innovation often involves the combination of unexpected features or solutions in new or novel way.  Artificial intelligence can spot and discard thousands of connections that would take humans years to even consider.  A significant amount of drug discovery is already working in this way.  

The advent of innovation by AI does not preclude people from working in innovation and certainly won't prescribe the activity, but as long as we continue to focus our attention in the educational system on rote memorization and de-emphasize risk taking and creativity, the more and more these acts become acts of rebellion or resistance against a system, by people who do not fit into the mainstream.  This is not to suggest that there will be an "us vs them" mentality, but most good innovators are somewhat outside of the mainstream, and the current environment and movement to more automated methods of innovation may make it even more so.  

Plus, there are some innovations and some breakthroughs that simply require human involvement and innovation.  While AI can combine existing capabilities and molecules to decide if a new combination has value, AI (at least not now) can't imagine new possibilities, new services and business models, new experiences that consumers value.  There are entire vistas of innovation possibility out there, waiting to be explored and, yes, monetized, if only businesses would be more active in seeking out the possibilities.  Yet, most companies stick within a very narrow range of new product development options, unable or unwilling to shift the frame and think differently.  Little wonder, since the population seems to be moving in that direction as well.

The dystopian future of Terminator is bleak but unrealistic.  Machines and AI will become more powerful, but the relationship will be symbiotic, just not in the way of Terminator or The Matrix.  We will become more dependent on machines and AI for more of our thinking and even our creativity if we aren't careful.  True creativity and innovation are almost purely human characteristics, exceptionally difficult for machines to create, but these acts aren't always useful or beneficial.  However, in the right conditions they lead to new learning and new discovery.

The question is:  are we willing to relegate our lives, our thinking and our innovations to a small group of people who continue to work and innovate, and to machines and AI that won't explore all the innovation possibilities and options?  Will we be happy with a continuous supply of incremental and safe ideas that aren't all that interesting and fail to explore new opportunities?  If what I am saying as a warning seems to reflect the current reality, then get ready for more of it.

If you want more, if you think people and society is capable of more, then start by training your kids and students in creative thinking and innovation.  Encourage them to explore beyond the rigid academic boundaries, to combine new thoughts and new experiences.  As Heinlein said - specialization is for insects.  We need people who are open to new ideas and new experiences, who will push further into creativity and innovation, to re-invigorate innovation in society, in government and in business.

And it cannot come soon enough.  Otherwise, complacency, lethargy and satisfaction with the current state will settle in, and we'll create an entire generation of people who are completely satisfied with staring at photos and short video clips on a handheld device.  Oh, maybe we've failed this generation.  Maybe they'll recognize that life and experiences and risk beyond the handheld are out there and reject the trap of social media to go well beyond.

It's time to move beyond relying on Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried and other "innovators" to create new things.  SBF didn't create, he merely masked a Ponzi scheme and bamboozled a willing press.  We, all of us, are responsible for what we want to buy, consume and experience.  Stop waiting for others to innovate, stop waiting for the next band leader to bring the music to town.  Start innovating on your own, in small groups, with your friends, with teams at work.

Start defining and shaping your own innovations, rather than waiting for someone to sell you one of theirs.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:06 PM


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