Who Killed Imagination

There are only two skills that are guaranteed to be in demand over the next fifty years: innovative problem solving and the advocacy of such innovations. A key attribute of future career success is therefore imaginative power. For many adults, imagination seems an impossible job requirement. Yet almost all children have imagination in abundance. But while once it was there, later it is gone. So who killed the imagination of children?

There are many culprits. There are the parents who tell children to stop daydreaming; but children do need to stop being imaginative about their personal hygiene or bedtimes. There are the teachers who insist on established norms; but children should not be imaginative when they are spelling or counting. There are the coaches who insist on a precise play or yoga position. There is the need to stop children from disobeying the rules of the road, or other safety requirements. There is the grandparent who tells the teenager to grow up; but teenagers do need to learn maturity. There is the career counselor who tells a young person to be realistic. And indeed, the young do need to stop fantasizing about becoming astronauts or rock stars. But none of these logically required constraints require the death of imagination: merely that it be channeled to where it belongs and away from where it does not. But the result is nevertheless the death of imagination. So there are more villains to be identified.

There is a parent who prizes the manageability of the well behaved child who stays within well-defined norms. There is the adult who lets youth devour entertainment so packaged that nothing is left to the imagination, even as the adult does likewise.

There is the teacher or coach who finds a disciplined classroom or team both convenient and stress-free. There is the manager who values predictability and consistency. There is the tax collector and bureaucrat whose primary job is to enforce rules, whether sensible or not. Those who profit from the status quo disparage those whose imaginations set off too many questions. There are those who are too lazy to engage a creative vision, so much easier to watch a movie. There are these and more who together create a popular culture that actively resists change, the inevitable companion of imagination.

What begins as a reasonable effort to help a child master the world turns into a full-scale assault on imagination in every form, until for most people imagination is pushed into the farthest recesses of the mind, there to atrophy. And so we have today’s world, where even an urgent need for innovation is met with the tweak of existing practice, no more than the pretense of a new idea. Ask students an open-ended question, and watch them panic. Governments extol the economic benefits of innovation and offer no new ideas to encourage it. Even technology companies and explicitly creative enterprises either iterate yet again a previous idea, or admit defeat and buy innovation from outside suppliers. Movies recycle old scripts endlessly. New products are innovative because they are thinner. Video games break new ground by being louder and faster. And so it goes. Even as the need for innovation grows more critical, and in spite of the potential of great advantage, true innovation remains scarce. Those who can regain their lost imagination will benefit greatly.
How do you reignite your imagination? The answer is simple: practice. Since many people will practice their tennis game or the intricate details of Asian cookery, applying the same technique to imagination is much less common. So start now and regress to the best part of your childhood.

Cook something different, much different. Take a new route home. Read something different. Learn something radically new. Watch a movie and in your mind re-write the ending. Compose the lyrics to a song as you careen down the highway. Doodle creatively on your performance appraisal. Do something seriously different with your friend or partner. The process will be painful at first. Gears in your mind rusty with disuse will grind, often to a halt. So you just push through harder. Enjoy the occasional flicker of an imaginative impulse, and redouble your practice.

Slowly and then more surely, the glory of your childhood can return. With the imagination of the child and the battle scars of the adult, you are ready for true adventure.


How Soon Will It Happen?

One day, it is sure to happen. One day artificial intelligence [AI] will become so effective that it would be able to perform a large measure of professional work. Of course, professional workers have been steadily losing part of their work to software for many years. Hundreds of applications, including spreadsheets, contract templates, valuation models and computer-assisted design, have chipped away at the tasks of knowledge workers. This effect has been basically hidden as the total demand for professional work of all kinds has soared, driven by the demands of a technologically complex and global economy. In the absence of today’s computer aids, there would have been a severe shortage of professional workers. And this moderating effect continues as the world’s work shifts to knowledge workers. Still, the threat, or the promise, of AI grows in force.

As the ability of AI to learn improves, it will inevitably take over more of a professional’s typical work. And it is certainly the case that machine learning is advancing, and that the pace of its development is increasing. The issue we therefore face is clear: will AI’s absorption of professional work proceed at the sedate pace of the past, allowing society adequate time to adapt; or will machine learning accelerate to produce a seriously disruptive effect? Or perhaps we are looking at a catastrophic effect? The latter effect is far from certain, but it is not implausible.

There are two schools of thought. One holds that AI has now developed most of the fundamental insights it needs to take machine learning to a level that rivals most applications of human thought, or even to exceed them. Indeed, with deep data mining, it is already impossible for a human to process effectively the volumes of data available. As a result, it is argued that only evolutionary advances in AI, together with increases in cheap computing power, are all that is required for a radical transformation of the labour markets. Therefore, the only real question is when, not whether. And the implied answer is sooner, rather than later.

Let us note that autonomous vehicles are moving forward faster than anticipated primarily because of advances in AI. We must ask whether this is a harbinger of much more disruptive effects.

Alternatively, it may be argued that AI is still in need of further breakthrough research, whose outcome is far from assured and whose timing cannot be anticipated. Moreover, most of today’s AI applications are still very routine and are far from high-level analytic thinking. For example, data mining is not much more than brute pattern matching and introductory statistics. And while the ability to drive a car is impressive for a machine, it is completely unimpressive for a human. Any 16-year old can drive a car without crashing it too often. Turning that kid into a lawyer is a rather different matter.

[We omit comment about pure science fiction “singularities”. Speculations are, of course, valid exercises in honing one’s imagination. It is not the basis for prediction, or career planning.]

In light of these uncertainties, ones which continue for some time, each of us must decide why we are better than the machines, or how we could quickly become better if the need arose. Instead of ignoring the possibility, let us examine it.

We should ask if it is possible for a machine to become human, or almost human in its thought processes. Here the answer is clearly and aggressively that we do not know. Any assertion to the contrary is unfounded. The reason has nothing to do with what technology might be invented. Rather, we do not know what it really is to be human. If we are wondering whether a machine can mimic us, we would need to know what we are.

Yes, we are a calculating machine. Yes, we have memory and processing power. Yes, we react to our environment and we understand the electro-chemical basis of emotion. But we are still a mystery to ourselves. Yes, we are hard wired to get angry or sexually aroused. But what makes us look to the sky and imagine infinity? What makes us imagine what we have never seen and never will? What makes us know we are here? What makes us wonder what our destiny is, or if we have one? Where do these ideas come from?

Speaking solely for myself, I am more than an inference engine. What are you?


The Unsurprising Financial Markets

There is no doubt that the world’s financial markets play an indispensable role in fueling economic growth and development. There is equally no doubt that large amounts of capital are misallocated and therefore wasted. Part of the misallocation occurs because far too many conflicts of interest and instances of self-dealing continue to be tolerated. That is in addition to those who with malice aforethought create false information to mislead the unwary. However, responsibility for the greater part of this misallocation arises from a different source: those who claim that the future cannot be predicted usefully. Notice how this plays out.

Those who are optimistically inclined, whether genuinely or not, and those who are optimistic in order to promote sales, deals and commissions are of course often contradicted by events. Are they then held to account? Rarely. The prognosticators always invoke their great excuse, claiming that nobody could see the anomaly coming, that they were all wrong together. After all, the future is unknowable, they plead. But they plead not for forgiveness, but for acquiescence in the state of their version of reality.

Of course, they are right about one aspect of predicting the future, the aspect they use to excuse all else. Indeed, the future cannot be predicted in great detail, or in any detail in some circumstances. But that does not mean it cannot be predicted usefully. The definition of useful in this context is quite clear. Can you use the prediction to guard yourself from danger, or in some cases to advance your economic interests? And for economic predictions that are thoughtfully applied, the answer is emphatically yes.

This blog has long argued that the only realistic outlook for the global economy is slow growth, at best. The reason is entirely clear: all of the world’s major marketplaces face serious and multiple problems. The governments of the United States and the European Union, for example, are near dysfunctional. And interest rates are so low only because growth is illusive. To predict sustained growth at historically high rates requires us to assume that all or almost all of the world’s major problems are resolved nearly simultaneously. That is an assumption only the heroically blind optimist could make.

Nevertheless, modest growth in the United States and no immediate crisis like 2007-08 were enough to propel the financial markets upward, with no allowance for anything to go wrong. Strictly speaking, it actually meant that everything had to go right!

As this blog has pointed out, these multiple, complex and overlapping problems inevitably produce both high uncertainty and high volatility. So how could you be surprised that energy and commodity prices are unstable? Or perhaps you are surprised at exactly how low energy prices have fallen? But it is the essence of volatility in uncertain times that the swings will be very wide, if not wild.

Notice what assumption was necessary in order for energy and commodity prices to be even approximately stable. China would have had to slow its massive economy from unsustainable to sustainable growth rates and would have had to do so smoothly. China would have had to do this even though it had never done it before and its financial and regulatory institutions are still in development. It would have needed timely and reliable statistics, and minimal corruption. It could not overshoot its targets in either direction. And why we are surprised that China has struggled with this great challenge? And as China struggles, the energy and commodity markets weaken further.

So now that reality has emphatically asserted itself, the optimists have bailed and the markets have tanked. Of course, once you really do believe that the future is completely unknowable, adversity easily causes over-reaction. So the markets are likely to fall far further than circumstances warrant. But even that observation is uncertain. So where does that leave the individual?

Since everyone’s circumstances are different, there is no single way to effectively respond to today’s environment. But there are several basic approaches that serve in times of great uncertainty. Avoid inflexible obligations. Try to insulate part of yourself from the external environment. One way is to seek out individual investment opportunities that are not strongly dependent on the overall economy; ideally, you find an investment that is strengthened by volatility and slow growth. They do exist.

Last and not least, make sure your career strategy is aggressive. Add to your advantage by enhancing your innovative capability. Remember the highly innovative problem solver is always in demand.