“We now live in a global, exponential world,” Steven Kotler tells my coauthor Michael Ashley and I from his Santa Monica office. We’re interviewing the New York Times bestselling author and entrepreneur for our upcoming book: Uber Yourself Before You Get Kodaked: A Modern Primer on A.I. for the Modern Business. “You need to understand our brains evolved in a local, linear environment. We cannot process change at this speed or this scale; we’re bad at it. But in the 21st century, according to research done by Ray Kurzweil, we will experience over 20,000 years’ worth of change. To put it succinctly, over the next 80-something years we will go through the birth of agriculture to the industrial revolution — twice — in terms of our technological advancement.”
Much has been made of the fact that humans are poised to be replaced by artificial intelligence in the workplace, from home-care robots to robot waiters. However, what Kotler and his coauthor Peter Diamandis have asserted in such books as Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and the Impact the World, is that unprecedented technological abundance is also coming. Importantly, these thinkers suggest the future of prosperity depends not just on exponential technological innovation, but also on exponential creativity.
“My organization, the Flow Genome Project, recently participated in Red Bull’s Hacking Creativity Project,” says Kotler. “Comprised of nearly 30,000 studies and hundreds of interviews, it was the largest empirical study of creativity yet undertaken. One of the overarching conclusions reached is that creativity is the most important skill for thriving in the 21st century.” Kotler is not alone in his assertion creativity is the key to success in the future. Stephen Ibaraki, the founder/chairman of the UN ITU AI For Good Global Summit with XPRIZE Foundation, in a recent interview for our book, advised today’s young people to focus their efforts on developing their problem-solving skills: “The areas that automation will have trouble cracking will involve creativity, innovation, and imagination.”
Cognizant of the value of creativity, Kotler for years has studied how it works — and how to hack it for superhuman results. The Flow Genome Project’s director of research, he sees achieving flow state as crucial to reaching our true potential. Sometimes called “being in the zone,” flow technically is defined as “an optimal state of consciousness.” It’s when we feel our best and perform our best, when time slows, when we become so absorbed in the task at hand everything else disappears. “It’s well established this is the state of being humans prefer most,” says Kotler. “We will take flow over sex. We will take flow over drugs. It’s the best feeling on earth.”
So, why is flow so special? In flow state, human performance goes through the roof. Our attention crystallizes. Our abilities to pattern-form skyrocket. A McKinsey study performed over a 10-year period discovered high-level executives to be 500 times more productive in flow. The more the mind focuses in flow state, the more our inner critic shuts up. It’s when stream of conscious ideas gush forth like an uncorked champagne bottle. Scientists even have causal evidence suggesting flow states lead to greater learning results.
So, are today’s schools training tomorrow’s workforce to be creative? Are they helping young people develop the skills Kotler and Ibaraki view as so important? The Guardian’s George Monbiot doesn’t think so. In a 2017 article, he wrote “Our schools were designed to produce the workforce required by 19th century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards.”
According to Monbiot, being employable or succeeding as an entrepreneur in the future will demand defying antiquated social engineering. “You must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical, and socially skilled.” In a word, you must be … human. Now what if AI could teach us how to be more human? More creative?
According to Kotler, it can. It so happens AI is excellent at developing human potential. To this end, the Flow Genome Project is in the beginning stages of developing neural nets to capture data from biophysical sensors to determine if someone is in flow. “You’re essentially dealing with behavioral neuroscience, linking psychology to neuroscience,” he says. “What we are talking about is difficult to do, but it’s a great machine-learning problem.”
The challenge Kotler describes is an important one because there’s every reason to believe enhanced creativity is the linchpin to flourishing in the fourth Industrial Revolution. Historically, economics has been called “the dismal science” based on the Malthusian prediction that a growing population will outstrip the world’s resources. Basically, there won’t be enough to go around. However, with the advent of wildly productive technologies, such as 3-D printing, and yes, clean meat, the buzz word “scarcity” is being replaced in certain circles with a new one: “abundance.” Though Kotler and Diamandis have written much about this idea in their books, they make a big point to couch their assertion in practicality. Their version of abundance isn’t magical thinking, it’s grounded in rationalism, the law of accelerating returns, and most importantly, creativity.
“When Peter and I talk about abundance, people somehow misinterpret it as techno-utopianism,” says Kotler. “That’s not what we mean at all. We mean we have the technology to solve the world’s grand challenges. However, it is not going to happen automatically. In fact, it’s going to probably require the largest cooperative effort on earth.” Kotler points out that since the dawn of mankind, evolution has given us two solutions to combat scarcity. The first option — the one we have been doing since prehistorical times — is to compete over dwindling resources. “But there is a second option,” says Kotler. “One that actually appears again and again throughout nature: We can cooperate and make new resources.“
In order to pursue the latter choice, humans must be far more creative — and cooperative — than ever before. When it comes to climate change, mass extinction, escalating natural disasters, and rising sea levels, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The good news is mankind has some major advantages. We now have the internet, a mechanism capable of connecting minds simultaneously anywhere in the world. We also possess the benefit of AI. Among other things, this developing technology allows us to use our minds better — to think more deeply and imaginatively. And, as we have seen, the best way to reach such optimal creativity is through accessing flow states.
So, how might we achieve greater flow to meet the world’s challenges? The Flow Genome Project is hard at work on innovative solutions. Cognizant of the fact individuals more easily access flow states through action/adventure sports, they are building Flow Dojos. Using AI, married with virtual reality, these feature “extreme circus equipment.” Safely protected in a virtual environment, your body gets to experience the sensations of looping swings capable of launching you 25 feet off the ground, catapulting you through the air at 3G’s. Likewise, they utilize hyper-realistic video games to stimulate flow.
But Kotler has even bolder ambitions to use AI to harness flow. “I want to build a semantic analysis system capable of learning from the world’s growing content,” he says. “The leading experts on high performance have now done thousands of podcasts. The smartest thing we could do to achieve new levels of high performance is actually use AI to crawl those podcasts, ingest the data, and look for similarities.”
At the end of the day, Kotler and today’s other exponentially-minded thinkers have one foot in this era and one dangling in the unknown — a realm of imagination beyond our wildest dreams. Throughout the ages, creativity is what built our greatest inventions, what led to our enduring achievements. It also led to AI. Now AI stands poised to meld with us to envision and build a world unlike anyone has ever seen. It’s no wonder tech companies in Silicon Valley have begun hiring science-fiction writers to ideate new products. What was once the realm of Arthur C. Clarke and William Gibson is fast becoming reality as human creativity grows and flows. It’s a good time to be alive, to witness such innovation, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of revolution … This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”