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Anthony Hilton: Imagination is all that’s needed to keep up with AI

Getting out and meeting new people is good for us
Getting out and meeting new people is good for us / Getty Images
26 February 2019

nowledge is so last century; this is the age of imagination” said a speaker at a conference in Prague four years ago. “Everything you need to know you can get from Google. What you cannot get is where knowledge ends.”

It was a nice line but I’ve been wondering what it actually meant until last week when Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, spelt it out. Speaking to an audience at the Glasgow School of Art — scene of the devastating fire — he talked of imagination and creativity and how this distinguishes humans from primates. Our brains take up 25% of our energy; primates take just 8% because hunting for food takes up more. Brains create ideas. But ideas also need organisations which set the rules of the game if they are to prosper, and these take time to become embedded.

Even now, in large parts of the world, a lack of growth isn’t caused by a lack of imagination, but because the institutions aren’t there to bring those ideas forward. Britain was lucky because the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666 led to the insurance industry, Lloyd’s, the Bank of England and the financial sector — all of which were institutional.

Now we’re getting ready for the fourth industrial revolution: steam power created the first in the 18th century; sanitation, electricity and the internal combustion engine created the second in the 19th century; computers, the internet and digital created the third in the 20th century; and this century it is artificial intelligence.

It is clearly going to be hugely disruptive but Haldane says there are things we can do. It is said that between 10% and 50% of the workforce face some form of machine disruption in 10 to 15 years. But in 1750, 50% of people worked in primary industries, notably agriculture, whereas now it is 1%. Shifts in employment have always taken place; the difference is that this time the shifts are so much faster. We can mitigate this but inequality and unemployment loom even larger if we just let it happen.

That is why we need to reconfigure what we do with education. The school and university system was ideal for the knowledge-based economy. What we need now are not more knowledgeable students but academies producing a creative workforce.

We need people who don’t follow in straight lines but who can navigate elsewhere: creativity not knowledge, imagination rather than intelligence, EQ as well as IQ. And people have these gifts — even if they have been suppressed in a command and control workforce for the past 200 years. Indeed creativity is a core skill in all of us, the one skill we know is uniquely human.

But it needs to be nurtured and encouraged. Sir Ken Robinson, a British educationalist, gave one of the biggest technology, entertainment and design (TED) talks 13 years ago in which he said that our present system tends to teach creativity out of children.

Likewise Professor Philip Bond, of Bristol University, says creativity is not about random shafts of inspiration, it is about creating the right environment for lightning to strike in the first place. The shapes and colours of our offices are important; eating and sleeping patterns matter; meeting new people is good; new experiences work wonders. An apple is unlikely to fall on our head if we are desk-bound.

Though it may not always be apparent, people also adapt to accommodate machines. Doctors use machines to make a lot of diagnoses but there is still plenty more for them to do. Go — the 2500-year-old Chinese strategy game — is far more complex than chess and Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo algorithm managed to beat South Korean Lee Se-dol in 2016 by breaking all human conventions. But then, two games on, Lee made a move which also defied human conventions and AlphaGo went into meltdown and lost the game.

We need to be thinking about the future. We need universities to think the unthinkable and embrace life-long learning. We need to move away from core subjects to a multi-disciplinary model where the right environment for creativity often means breaking free of disciplinary silos. So, roll on emotional intelligence and empathy, entrepreneurship and design, creativity and digital literacy.

As Einstein said: “Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world. Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere.”

And that was in 1929.