Artists can do more than engineers to push innovation in tech

Two and a half men? Ashton Kutcher brings more than his money and connections to the table.
Two and a half men? Ashton Kutcher brings more than his money and connections to the table.
Image: Reuters/China Daily Information Corp
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Some actors fully immerse themselves in their roles. They become their character for the duration of the shooting by adopting their accents, mannerisms, and personalities. Very rarely do they stay in character beyond the wrap party.

And then there’s Ashton Kutcher. After playing Steve Jobs in the biopic of the late Apple founder, the actor was made a product engineer by Chinese technology company Lenovo. Many, including Quartz, dismissed the appointment as little more than a public-relations stunt and cast doubt on his technical capabilities.

They shouldn’t.

What if we’re not asking the right questions? What if creative people such as Kutcher bring the human-centricity that technology companies are missing? After all, it’s what they live for. What if Kutcher’s knack for success as an investor is not just chance but precisely because of his artistic temperament? It could give him (and Lenovo) the ability to prioritize humans in technology and their needs better than engineers.

In 2005, I heard a version of this philosophy that changed my life. “Almost always, the paradigm shifter is someone outside the industry. The 21st century is the outsider’s century,” futurist, author and filmmaker Joel A. Barker declared at a 2005 conference in Istanbul.

His words helped clinch my decision to turn down admission to an MBA program in Paris and study drama in Istanbul instead. I majored in engineering in undergrad and graduate school, and everyone said an MBA was the next logical step. That, they said, would give me the necessary skills to run a business—not an arts degree.

Thankfully, this point of view is being turned on its head.

Ray Kurzweil, founder of Singularity University and vice president of engineering at Google, explained how we can benefit from artists’ and designers’ skills in technology at a talk. “There should be a robust communication between arts, humanities and technology,” he said. “Technology really suffers when they [engineers] don’t really understand human nature.” He talks about “merging those two worlds because ultimately that’s where success would lie.”

Over the last two decades, asking about people’s nationality, gender, or ethnic origin has been increasingly regarded as discrimination. Perhaps asking for their education and expertise is, too. As contribution to innovation is changing and advancing, why alienate people who may bring fresh ideas? When pairing artists with technology, instead of doubting their expertise, we should ask whether these celebrities could focus on these projects to learn basics from scratch. Or whether other team members are ready to work with an outsider and be open enough to value basic questions.

This summer, I joined 80 people from 38 countries at Singularity University summer program. We worked on global issues such as health and education and use exponential technologies to tackle these problems, biotechnology among the most popular. However, most of us barely had high school-level biology. Without questioning anybody’s technical skills, biology 101 classes were arranged by biotechnology chair Raymond McCauley. By the end of the program, there were four biotech projects.

My fellow participant Katharina Wendelstadt, who has a background in history and work experience in the mobile industry, explains why: “As I am not an expert, I can ask silly or simple questions and actually they may seem so obvious that the scientists in our team had not thought of them, but helped us to refine the product.”

In the same project, Geoffrey Siwo, a PhD candidate who works on computational modeling of biological systems at Notre Dame, told me what he got out of it: “It allows me to explain the technology with much higher clarity. Non-specialists are forced to think of metaphors for a technical problem at hand. And metaphors are extremely powerful catalysts for finding solutions because they enable you to abstract a complex problem into a form that you can draw into your experiences to solve a problem.”

Indeed, technical skills or expertise may not be the right approach for projects that need breakthrough innovations. As Vivek Wadhwa, Singularity’s vice president of research and innovation, has said, “The biggest enemy of innovation is the expert.”

Questioning Kutcher’s presence at a tech company discourages other artists or lay people to venture into these areas. And to achieve breakthrough innovation, we need them. Working with outsiders requires a new of form of thinking, being, and questioning.