Beyond automation: AI's role in augmenting human creativity and innovation

At this year’s SXSW, one of the most reassuring images was shown during John Maeda’s ‘Designers Ag[ai]nst AI’ talk.

In it, he referred to an article published by MIT (referenced below) but chose to redraw the key diagram showing three rectangles. The first, a white rectangle, references the volume of tasks AI can automate away from humans. The second yellow rectangle depicts the volume of tasks that only humans can do (that AI can’t and presumably won’t do). Spoiler alert: it’s bigger than the first.

The tension in the air (created by 3000 tech industry folks sitting there with broadly the same question on their lips: “Am I toast?”) suddenly dissipates when he shows a third, bigger blue rectangle that represents the range of tasks that can only be done by humans together with AI.

It illustrates the opportunity before us beautifully and shows that the debate is often focused on the overlap between what AI can and what humans can do; it doesn’t focus on what we could jointly do. A big blue sea of opportunity.

While understandable, this usual concern misses a more important and promising narrative: the immense opportunities that arise when humans and AI collaborate. By combining human ingenuity with machine efficiency, we can unlock new levels of innovation and drive progress across various sectors far beyond mere automation.

Erik Brynjolfsson explored the concept of the Turing Trap, which encapsulates the dual nature of AI’s promise and peril. Named after Alan Turing, the father of theoretical computer science and AI, the trap refers to the narrow pursuit of creating machines that mimic human intelligence. This focus can lead to misplaced fears about AI replacing human jobs and underappreciation of the broader potential for AI to enhance human capabilities.

Erik Brynjolfsson outlines in his paper on the promise and peril of human-like AI that the Turing Trap has two key dimensions: the “mimicry” dimension, where AI attempts to replicate human abilities, and the “augmentation” dimension, where AI complements and enhances human skills. The former often stokes fears of obsolescence, while the latter opens up a landscape of new possibilities for innovation and productivity.

Augmenting human capabilities

Photo by: Nappy


Rather than viewing AI as a competitor, seeing it as an enabler of human potential is more productive. AI’s strengths are processing vast amounts of data, identifying patterns, and performing repetitive tasks precisely and quickly. The results can be transformative when these capabilities are harnessed alongside human creativity, empathy, and strategic thinking.

Consider the healthcare industry, where AI has already revolutionised patient care and medical research. AI algorithms can analyse complex medical data to assist doctors in diagnosing diseases more accurately and swiftly. For instance, AI-powered diagnostic tools have shown promise in detecting conditions like cancer and cardiovascular diseases, where early intervention is critical.

However, as Brynjolfsson points out, automating an entire job is often brutally difficult because many tasks require uniquely human skills. For example, while AI might read mammograms more accurately than a human radiologist, it cannot perform the other twenty-six tasks associated with the job, such as comforting a concerned patient or coordinating a care plan with other doctors. This highlights the indispensable role of human empathy and decision-making in healthcare.

AI in creative industries

Photo by: julien Tromeur

The creative industries also provide a fertile ground for AI and human collaboration. AI tools are being used to augment the creative process in fields such as music, art, and design. For example, AI can generate preliminary design concepts or suggest improvements based on vast datasets of previous works.

This liberates designers to focus on refining and adding unique, human touches to their creations. Creative partnership not only speeds up the creative process but also expands the horizons of what is possible.

The Turing Trap

The risks of focusing too narrowly on AI that mimics human behaviour is that you miss the bigger opportunity, as illustrated below.

A focus on automation can lead to competition between humans and machines, potentially displacing human workers. However, by shifting the focus to AI that augments human capabilities, we can create new roles and opportunities that enhance human potential rather than diminish it.

The Turing Trap illustration emphasises that AI’s real value lies in its ability to complement human strengths. For example, while an AI might be able to perform data analysis at incredible speeds, the human ability to interpret these analyses and apply them creatively drives true innovation. This symbiotic relationship between humans and machines can lead to breakthroughs that neither could achieve alone.

Brynjolfsson presents an example: If Jeff Bezos had replaced all human cashiers with robot versions, that would have realised immediate cost savings, but it would have fallen short of Amazon’s potential impact. Instead, Amazon reinvented the bookstore by combining humans and machines in a novel way.

As a result, they offer vastly greater product selection, ratings, reviews, and advice and enable 24/7 retail access from the comfort of customers’ homes. The power of the technology was not in automating the work of humans in the existing retail bookstore concept but in reinventing and augmenting how customers find, assess, purchase, and receive books and, in turn, other retail goods.

This example underscores how AI can transform an industry by augmenting human capabilities and creating new ways of interaction and service delivery.

Embracing a culture of innovation

Photo by: Marek Piwnicki

Organisations must foster a culture that embraces the art of the possible to fully realise the potential of AI and human collaboration. This involves investing in upskilling employees, encouraging experimentation, and maintaining an open dialogue about the evolving role of AI in the workplace.

By focusing on the collaborative potential between humans and AI, we can create a future where technology augments human capabilities, driving unprecedented innovation and opening new frontiers across various sectors. The real promise of AI lies not in mimicking human intelligence but in complementing it, creating more opportunities than it eliminates and transforming how we live and work.

How can we help?

At Else, we understand that integrating AI into your business is not a one-size-fits-all approach. By evaluating AI’s role through the lenses of enhancement, advancement, and pioneering, we help organisations harness AI’s full potential. Whether you aim to elevate operational efficiency, drive innovation, or lead transformative changes, Else provides the expertise and strategic foresight needed to navigate AI as an evolution or a revolution with success.