One of my superpowers is as a connector. I see patterns where others do not. Large Language Model AI is also a connector. It works by brute force associations from an extensive database that includes most of the Internet. You would think that AI’s ability to form connections would deeply threaten me. I am not threatened. I am excited.
I have always seen technology for what it is, or at least what it could be. True technological breakthroughs augment our human capabilities. I have been lucky enough to have had this happen to me three times in my lifetime. AI promises to be the fourth.
As I describe in Discovering Digital Humanity, which is about using technology to augment our creativity, the personal computer was a revolutionary device for me. It opened doors to design and iteration that were not accessible to most of us before it. I could write at a whole new level, worrying about ideas and not typos.
The next leap was to use these new powers to connect with other humans. This happened starting in the late 80s with my first encounters with the internet. Suddenly, I was connected to minds across the globe instead of just across the room. These conversations shaped the way I thought and learned. I could think at a whole new level, worrying about ideas and not the logistics of travel and conferences.
In the first decade of this century, I was gradually given control over powerful tools that let me manipulate and share graphics, whereas in the first decade of the web, my sharing was largely limited to text. This combination of Photoshop, mind mapping, and Web 2.0 formed a cornerstone of my work and has augmented my creative expression to this day. Instead of my visual narratives winding up in a box in my closet, I could create representations of the world as I saw it and share them widely.
A common refrain these days is that Large Language Model AI differs from those past jumps. However, at each one of these inflection points, we heard similar refrains. Dire warnings about job loss and mass dislocation permeated the media at every step.
Some of these predictions have turned out to be true. However, in every instance, humans have adapted, albeit slowly, to the unfamiliar landscape. People reinvented their personal and professional lives in ways that leveraged the new possibilities technology opened for them.
At the same time, systems adapted much slower than individuals. It is in this disconnect where we face our greatest challenges.
At each of these junctures, however, we witnessed fresh bursts of creativity. Humans have a natural tendency to play. Technology opens doors for play.
Play is central to creativity, learning, and innovation. From da Vinci to Newton to Einstein, a common trait connecting brilliant minds is an inherent playfulness. They understood it was important to learn to laugh at constraints if they wanted to break through them.
If technology enhances playfulness in all of us, then we will have a much greater density of brilliant minds. This can only help humanity.
Most of the tension that we see from this democratization of creative potential comes from systems unable or unwilling to adapt. As I discuss in Discovering Digital Humanity, industrial systems are profoundly dehumanizing. They do not reward creativity, except among a tiny elite at the top. The rest of us are supposed to be cogs in the machines that operationalized someone else’s ideas. Creativity only emanated from the top.
This mindset has become deeply ingrained in our cultures of work and learning. Since at least the Xerox machine, technology has threatened industrial systems. Moments of rebellion, from Xeroxing unofficial newsletters to creating viral joke emails, occurred almost immediately. These were indicators of repressed human creative potential.
Open resistance to the systems also manifested itself in areas from hacking computer systems to scholastic dishonesty using the Internet. As a teacher, it took me a long time to realize that my students who were cheating, and I see this as cheating themselves, were doing so as an act of rebellion against meaningless instruction, and the assessments that went along with it.
I have been cheating systems all my life that seek to limit my creativity. Technology has always given me the power to do this. Like Newton and da Vinci, I’m always looking beyond the systems around me.
In the 1980s, I spent a great deal of time mastering the processes of chemical photography. However, I could never achieve the technical mastery of someone like Ansel Adams, at least not quickly.
In the 2000s, Photoshop became available to me, and suddenly I could create images that were technically comparable to those of Adams. This freed me to focus on the creative/mental aspects of photography.
I could also share these images widely on Flickr. Far more people saw my work online than would’ve been the case if I had just been hanging photographs in galleries.
By the end of the 1980s, I was a good photographer, but not a great one. I’m not saying I’m a great one now, but I’m a lot better than I was in the 1980s. Digital also vastly reduced the monetary and temporal costs of producing photography. I shoot an order of magnitude more now because I did not have to worry about the costs of film and processing. Practice makes perfect.
These experiences are why I am not worried about AI replacing me as a tool for connection. I’m a far more sophisticated connector than any AI today. Even as AI advances, I will still provide a human nuance to any set of connections that an AI might produce.
But, by eliminating a lot of the low-level connection work that I’ve always had to do to achieve higher levels of creativity, I expect AI will augment my connection powers. Instead of connecting from scratch, I will connect sets of connections. This is exciting.
Connections make us human. They underlie every art ever created. Art is fundamentally an expression of connection. As Pablo Picasso said, and Steve Jobs liked to quote, “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.“ AI is not an artist, even though it borrows liberally. Anyone with a sense of artistic value recognizes AI for what it is.
Our problems are that we have been living in systems for centuries that have worked to dampen and disparage our creative visions. I am lucky to have lived through a series of creative explosions. Technology opened new vistas of creative possibilities for me at every inflection point.
This fourth revolution will do the same. Of that I have little doubt. I just wish more of the world would wake up and join me in exploring the possibilities of being human that are opening to us.