Why Creativity is Now More Important Than Intelligence

In a word: computers. Machines can now do what you could call IQ-style thinking – covering what ‘multiple intelligences’ theorist Howard Gardner would call visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence – pretty darn well. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here and it’s getting more sophisticated every day. But AC – Artificial Creativity – doesn’t exist.

AI has been unsettling the human world for quite some time. Can you believe it was 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer triumphed over chess colossus Garry Kasparov? Small wonder that fully twenty years later AI is breaking even scarier ground: in 2015, researchers from Microsoft and the University of Science and Technology of China proved that a computer can now outscore humans on IQ tests. The breakthrough came when researchers found a way for the program to properly learn from previous tasks (or ‘experiences’). Gulp.

The implications for the world of work are clear for anyone with a brain. Late last year Elon Musk caused a stir by predicting that AI will eventually replace most human jobs. (In his view, governments should therefore think about providing a universal basic income since paid work will be so hard to come by.) Alarmist, maybe, but not fantasy; the process has already begun. In January, for instance, Japanese insurance firm Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance announced it would be making 34 employees redundant, replacing them with IBM’s Watson Explorer AI. Brave New World? Grave New World, more like.

Now you might assume that creative thinking is just another small and inevitable next step for AI systems because creativity is merely a subset of intelligence. That’s long been the position of noted cognitive scientist Robert Weisberg, who argues there’s nothing really ‘special’ about creativity. For him, knowledge is not only necessary for creativity, it’s also sufficient – no other exotic or unusual process is involved. This view is in line with the much-discussed 10,000-hour rule of Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson (popularised by overachieving journalist Malcolm Gladwell) which points to years of hard work in accumulating skill and experience as the key to extraordinary achievement in any field – including where creative genius is involved.

But it’s not that simple. Most creativity researchers see creativity not merely as different to normal, everyday mental processes (which contribute to our general intelligence capacity), but in an important sense as superior. Neuroscientist Karl Pfenninger theorises that there is a ‘hierarchy of nervous system functions’ that all humans possess, which runs, in ascending order of evolved complexity and sophistication: autonomous control (‘control of vegetative functions’), instinct (‘inherited behavior, information storage in genome only’), memory (‘learned behavior, information storage outside genome’), language (‘information exchange within species’), intelligence (‘learned adaptation, understanding of contexts’) and creativity (‘vision of novel contexts’). For Pfenninger and many others, creativity sits on top of the pile because it requires an extra ‘leap’ beyond observable or available facts or knowledge and the reasoned ability to process them.

By this logic, even highly intelligent and learned minds may not be creative at all – and one look at the real world provides ample evidence of this. Just think about all those snooty film, theatre and literary critics whose analysis may be brilliant, based on not only encyclopaedic knowledge but also a penetrating understanding of the work they review and its place in the cultural landscape, but who may be unable to produce anything remotely creative themselves. No wonder reviewees loathe their reviewers so much. Creative ideas are simply far harder to achieve than intelligent analysis.

That’s borne out too by AI’s complete failure to crack the creative nut. According to computer scientist and leading creativity expert Professor Margaret Boden, Artificial Creativity is not going to happen any time soon. “Computers aren’t close to being ready to supplant human artists,” she declares, for one key reason: “Artificial Intelligence has an Achilles’ heel. It can’t decide what’s relevant.” While computers can recombine things in novel ways and use known patterns to construct well-formed cultural phenomena like songs and stories, they lack the human mind’s ability to make judgements about what feels right or best or interesting, fatally hobbling any AI program’s efforts to produce creative outcomes. She writes: “AI’s natural language processing is hugely limited by relevance blindness, the result of a computer that lacks semantic understanding or literary knowledge. Computers have written ‘novels,’ but the prose is horrifically bland. And computer-generated soap opera plots (which can ignore verbal and grammatical elegance) will win no Tonys.”

Suggesting you are now essentially machine replaceable – and may soon very well be machine replaced – does point to an undeniable conclusion. Creative thinking is a quality that’s already starting to be properly appreciated outside the so-called creative industries, not only among leaders and managers but also for virtually every working person. In light of the inexorable march of AI, one thing is now clearer than ever: if you want to future-proof your brain, make it more creative. In a world where any edge you have in general intelligence and industry-specific knowledge is of ever-decreasing worth, the one cognitive skill that will give you the most value and distinctiveness as a professional will be your imagination – your ability to generate and develop inventive, ingenious and original ideas – because it’s the one thing a computer may very well never be able to do.

The typical CV or resume just five years from now might look very different. Your experience and competence will count for a whole lot less if a computer program that’s just been released can do most of your work at a fraction of the cost. Instead you will necessarily have to stress how damn creative you are. You might want to say where you got your creativity training, what level you reached and what creative ideas you’ve had as a result – forget waffling on about being able to think outside the box, you'll have to actually show some evidence of it. Maybe you’ll even have a ‘creative IQ’ score to point to – hopefully one to boast about.

One thing’s for sure: with a creative thinking faculty increasingly at a premium in the coming months and years, you better start getting serious about working on it or risk becoming the human equivalent of Blockbuster Video. Wow what a difference.