Artists can do more than engineers to push innovation in tech


Artists can do more than engineers to push
innovation in tech

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
, dismissed the appointment as little more than a
public-relations stunt and cast doubt on his technical

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

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

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

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
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
. 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

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

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.

Gulay on Twitter @gulayozkan. We welcome your comments at

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