Creativity Can't Be Programmed

Higher Education


Last month, I opened the door to a public conversation with you, our reader, on why Ringling College of Art and Design matters, to you, to our community, to the world. Of course it matters to me—it’s been my passion, livelihood and daily existence for the past two decades. But this conversation—and this column, the second in an ongoing series that will appear monthly over the next few months—is focused on the first reason that Ringling College matters: Creativity cannot be programmed or automated.

Creativity is part of what makes us uniquely human. Our ability to invent, to innovate, to make beauty, is an inherently human characteristic. But, why will it matter so much in the future? The left-brain skills emphasized so strongly in both education and industry during the last two eras (the Industrial and the Technology Ages) are programmable and can be automated.

Don’t get me wrong. We have made great advances thanks to the prominence of those left-brain skills—analysis, logic, numeracy. The focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math of the last two eras has served us well. Technologies that seemed impossible a generation ago are now commonplace: a computer you can wear on your wrist; cars that run on electricity; artificial limbs made on a printer. But while we will still need these left-brain skills, they will not be enough because any routine, repeatable work can be executed using Artificial Intelligence.

To succeed in a future of AI, in the Creative Age, we will need to cultivate our right-brain skills—creativity, imagination, thinking holistically and intuitive thinking. All human beings are born with the ability to think creatively, to think in a different way from our peers, to approach challenges from unique perspectives. But in our emphasis on STEM and left-brain thinking, we have allowed our right-brain skills to atrophy. We created an educational system designed to prioritize efficiency over creativity, standardization over imagination. As education funding decreased, some schools chose to eliminate the subjects that foster right-brain thinking, programs like the visual arts, music, dance and theater. Students were taught there was one right answer to any question, one right way to solve a problem.

Again, this system served us well, helping to improve the way we travel, communicate, compute. However, it is advances in technology that are diminishing the importance of the left-brain skill set. AI can compute; it can find efficiencies; it can improve current systems.

In this reality of AI, in the new Creative Age, we need people who can use these technologies and tools in innovative, novel ways. More importantly, we need people who can think creatively, imagine new possibilities and create whole new worlds of innovation that never existed before. We will need people who can do more than find the one “right answer” to a problem. After all, we have efficient automated machines now that can do that.

What we need now are people who know how to use human insight to imagine multiple applications of new technologies to solve problems and improve society. That’s why I believe we no longer need more multiple choice tests with only one right answer. We need tests with multiple answers to bring out the creative thinking of individuals. That’s the new test of smartness for the Creative Age.

To flourish in the Creative Age—as individuals, as businesses, as communities, as a society—will require a new emphasis on right-brain skills. We need to combine those left-brain thinking skills with a fully developed right-brain skill set. That means we have to institute programs and an educational system that strengthen and value right-brain skills.

Let’s teach people to strengthen right-brain skills—imaginations, creativity, innovation. Solving tomorrow’s problems will require the talents of people who can use automation and technology creatively. Those who know how to use the creative and imaginative skills of the right brain in combination with the logic and analytic skills of the left brain are the people who will thrive and succeed. They will be the leaders in the future Creative Age.

So, what we are doing at Ringling College of Art and Design is exactly that—teaching students to combine left-brain and right-brain thinking to find multiple answers to problems, to apply technology in novel ways, to innovate and to make beauty. And that’s reason No. 1 why Ringling College matters.

Dr. Larry R. Thompson is the president of Ringling College of Art and Design.

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