Human beings have had to deal with numerous threats since the beginnings of our very existence. One could argue that it was our ancestors, the communities of hunters-gatherers, that had it the roughest: threats oscillated between a scarcity of food and an abundance of predators. Consider also that at that time any disease had the ability to ends a child’s, woman or man ́s life – no matter how powerful he was. That brutal mix resulted in a life ́s expectancy for primitive men that now a days only comes across as uncanny.
Technology – that is, the application of human knowledge towards developing tools, processes and systems which are useful for humankind – has steered us from those dark ages of the hunter and the tiger. It has no only allowed our survival as a species, but also our prosperity. However, technological advances of the second half of last century and so far in the 21st century have redefined our notion of technology. It has transcended from a tool for human progress and has become a true threat against our species.
We have managed to build machines and algorithms so powerful and smart that there are forecast that indicate that towards 2045, the time will come when machines –our creations– will become smarter than humans. This inflection point, known as Singularity, will mark the beginning of a whole universe of opportunity, but also of what is thought to be the end of our dominion as the highest ranked species on this planet.
The panic is real. Our tendency as humans is to cling on to our commanding position in the food chain – which we fought so much to attain. We won ́t allow our own creations to outperform us. That is why entrepreneurs, political leaders, scientists and futurists are looking for solutions that, although diverse in their origins, revolve around one constant: to stop the advance of these technologies.
What if we approach this issue from a different perspective? If we focus not on the machines, but on us, humans, and how can we be up to the threat itself?
Focusing on what we can achieve, instead of stopping the machines from advancing, leads to the question, what kind of human beings have the capacity to stand up to this threat? Do we perhaps need more specialists – that achieved so much technological advance?
If no one can operate through algorithms better than a machine, it seems inconvenient to try to outplay them in their own craft. And to have deep knowledge in one area (to be, in other words, a specialist) is to play the game of algorithms. What we need, then, are generalists. But not under the idea of “knowing a little about a lot”, bur rather under the huge challenge of being avirtuoso in many fields. And what better example than Leonardo Da Vinci?
Da Vinci’s Singularity
Recently we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo Da Vinci and going through the different special editions that were made in his honor, one could not fail to notice how dissimilar all of them were: some talked about his contributions to art, others mentioned his impact on science, and there were some which focused on his engineering background. This is normal. After all, with all that Da Vinci accomplished in his life, it ́s impossible to narrow it all down to one special edition! If we were to remember him for only one field then we would have to choose between The Mona Lisa̧ Virtuoso Man, and hundreds of creations.
Da Vinci was, without a doubt, an incredible man. He was “one hundred men in one” as the renowned biographer, Walter Isaacson, put it. Headlines are spot on calling him a genius.
To ask of people that, in order to prepare for Singularity, they must become like Da Vinci is, to say the least, absurd. It ́s impossible. There may never exist another man like him – at least it hasn’t happened in the last 500 years. What we can try, though, is to adopt some of the characteristics of his thinking and of the man himself. It ́s not a matter of becoming genius. It ́s truly a matter of adopting some of the characteristics of Da Vinci, the genius himself, that are as follows.
Fortunately we have had the opportunity to peek inside Da Vinci ́s notebooks and we have seen some of his to-do lists. While our own to-do lists can be boring and include chores such as “pay the bills” or “draft the memo”, Da Vinci ́s lists were anything but dull. One of them includes: Calculate the measurement of Milan and its suburbs, discover the measure of the Castello, find a master in hydraulics and get him to show you how to repair locks and mills, draw Milan.
From these lists it is possible to grasp just how enormous Da Vinci ́s intellectual curiosity was. His tasks speak of his interest on exploring different fields and learning skills and crafts from different masters. Curiosity is above all an attitude. As he himself wrote: “it is useful to constantly observe, note and consider”.
The size of Da Vinci ́s ambition is –as with all matters related to him– difficult to measure. The contrast with our own lazy thinking is plain sad. While we are immersed in the sloppiness of the routine and doing things the same way every single time, Da Vinci was thinking big. Thinking exponentially. He was envisioning things that at the time seemed impossible – things as crazy as flying.
We tend to believe that big enterprises, those that have the potential to impact thousands of people, are more difficult to execute than smaller enterprises. We conform, then, with smaller accomplishments, with incremental growth, because we believe exponential, magnanimous, is beyond our reach. We become conformists and forget that often times the energy and time required for something big is the same as that required for something great. Da Vinci ́s legacy is a call to action. To think big, to go beyond our limits (both physical and mental) and contribute not with a small grain of sand but rather with a huge mountain of granite.
The hiper-specialization in which we have been involved in recent years has had an unfortunate effect on our thinking: we have lost our creativity. We have trusted to numbers and analysis the advance of our species. And it makes sense – it was what we needed in order to be productive: numbers and analysis. What these times demand is something different: creativity. We need to unleash our right brain potential –that Whole New Mind, in Daniel Pink ́s words– where our creative thinking is caged.
It is possible to track Da Vinci ́s creativity in his work. Design allowed him to visually establish matters as complex as human anatomy. Art allowed him to tackle issues from a fresh perspective. Complex problems are rarely solved through an analytical perspective, it begs to be complemented with a creativemind.
Probably throughout history there have been many individuals that have had dreams and ideas as ambitious and creative as Da Vinci ́s. However, ideas themselves don’t survive the passing of time. They must be turned to reality. Da Vinci ́s legacy is not his plans for humankind, but rather his inventions, his art, calculations and contributions to science that he left behind after his passing. Da Vinci was, above all, a doer.
“Just as iron rusts from disuse, even so does inaction spoil the intellect” said Da Vinci. Strategy without execution results in nothing. The problem is we spent our
lives trying to figure out strategies and projects as genious as Da Vinci ́s. It probably would suit us better to start to execute more, like Da Vinci.
The usual question that comes to mind when you learn about Da Vinci is: how did one man accomplish so much? There is something that is often forgotten about Da Vinci ́s story and it is that he had a network of patrons that allowed him to seize his potential. They set the conditions and invested the resources so that Da Vinci could focus on what was really important: think, create, work.
The Medici family, Ludovico Sforza, Cesare Borgia, even King Francis I were members of such network. But that was all the way back in the 15th century. How can we get, now a days, people to develop creative thinking, exponential mindset, curiosity and execution? It seems impossible to find patrons for each individual.
We forget that now a days there is a kind of organization that didn’t exist back then and that has the potential to impact thousands of people: companies. The good news is that companies have begun to notice the fact that their productivity depends on its people and that in order to reach their organizational goals they must invest in the development of their employee’s potential.
What companies must do is clear: develop the asleep potential of individuals. Help humans come close to Da Vinci ́s thinking. In other words, steer us away from Singularity and the threat it poses upon humankind.