Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Sept. 27, 2018.
Earlier this month, Ringling College President Larry Thompson announced in this column that the Cross College Alliance (CCA) would found a Center for Creativity, Collaboration and Competitiveness.
Recall that the CCA consists of five local institutions of higher education within a four-mile radius: State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, New College of Florida, Florida State University/Ringling Museum and Ringling College of Art and Design.
The announcement argued that we have entered an age of creativity, in which technology and artificial intelligence will supplant much of the work we humans do and many jobs we hold. To compete, one must do what machines cannot: innovate.
The coinage of the new age is creativity, and the individuals, businesses, institutions and states that will succeed are those that out-innovate others.
So, what exactly is creativity?
The most productive definitions involve the creation of something — an object, a solution to a problem, an idea — new and useful. Human beings are inherently creative — one just has to watch children play.
Computers, however, are not creative. They run on algorithms, which are detailed sets of instructions, and there is nothing creative about simply following a set of instructions. Multiplying 134 by 87 is not creative, nor is grilling a steak. On the other hand, the creation of a new algorithm or new recipe where none exists often involves great creativity. The discoveries of how to represent numbers so that they can easily be multiplied, or how to cut and age steaks for easy preparation, involved major flights of creativity.
Computers can mimic human creativity, and at the core of that mimicry is the concept of machine learning — essentially programming a computer to update its own programming. The computer keeps making improvements in achieving some goal and then trains itself on data sets that are standardized. That produces algorithms that we do not fully understand — commonly referred to as “black boxes” — but that perform some tasks such as identifying faces, reading an X-ray, driving a car and carrying on a conversation.
All those are abilities that we once thought of as distinctively human. But this is a far cry from producing a computer that is creative in the sense that it produces something new. In fact, it seems unlikely that we will be able to make computers that are truly creative anytime soon. There are two reasons.
First, creativity resides not just in areas where there is no well-marked path to an answer, but in those where there is no recognized problem. We all use products or technologies that did not exist a decade ago, and that we never imagined we needed.
No one missed GPS, until we started using it. There is no recipe for creating a life-changing work of art, be it a painting or poem or novel or musical composition. My discipline, mathematics, abounds in ideas and unexpected results that seem magical.
The second reason is subtler. Creativity and precision are inextricably linked. In art, in mathematics, in business, in all endeavors, the most creative individuals almost always have great technical skills. But humans, unlike computers, are not confined by those skills.
In the mid-1960s, Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian born, post-war British journalist and science writer, argued that creativity (and humor) often involves thinking in two or more self-consistent, but mutually incompatible frames of reference. Adherence to a single frame of reference requires discipline and precision, something that computers are good at. But operating in two inconsistent frames requires tolerance for ambiguity and paradox, something they’re not. Ambiguity is to computer programs what carbon monoxide is to humans: deadly.
The American educational system’s record of encouraging creativity and innovation has drawn notice and envy from around the world. (The current infatuation with high-stakes testing and a pervasive public discourse that conflates education with job training threaten to erode this record). Happily, the CCA colleges, while committed to supplying present and future employers with the talent they need, recognize that good education requires encouraging students to explore and to experiment academically. Exploration and experimentation stimulate creativity.
The institutions that comprise the CCA practice high-impact teaching that nurtures creativity and, by definition, our alliance is all about collaboration. The problems and the technologies we encounter today are too complex to be addressed by a single person, no matter how creative or knowledgeable. Significant innovation requires collaboration. Our graduates must be able to work together with others effectively and to help catalyze others’ creativity.
Our idyllic corner of the world is particularly well situated for the center that we propose. In addition to the CCA, which anchors this region as an educational destination, Sarasota and Manatee house glorious arts organizations — seven theaters, an opera, symphony, ballet, museums, libraries — and first-class scientific and medical organizations. Three research-intensive universities (USF, FSU, UF) have a significant presence here. What better community for this Center for Creativity, Collaboration and Competitiveness?
We have the human and intellectual capital, and an extraordinarily philanthropic tradition. Florida, the nation and the world need us.