Human or AI?: The Edge on Innovation

In her new column, Korn Ferry’s Amelia Haynes explores the pressing question: Will GenAI surpass human creativity, or do humans still come out ahead?

Amelia Haynes

Research Manager, Korn Ferry Institute

No matter the time or place, humanity's talent for innovation is undeniable, from ancient cave paintings to modern electric vehicles. But as generative AI advances, questions linger: Are humans still the pinnacle of creativity? Or can generative AI surpass us?

Many argue that GenAI merely rehashes existing human-derived data, lacking true originality. On the other hand, some believe creativity boils down to three basic operations: bending, blending, and breaking—all of which generative AI can indeed do.

Whether humans are uniquely creative and innovative is up for debate; in both scientific circles and public discourse, opinions vary widely. Yet, by comparing human and GenAI creative abilities, we can start to understand how companies can leverage both to create an efficient and more ethical innovation system.

Human Creativity: Understanding the Original Innovators

Human creativity is complex and comes from our experiences, emotions, thoughts, knowledge, and skills. It's deeply rooted in how our minds work and the interplay of various processes in our brains. There are several things unique to humans that support creativity:

  • Mental imagery: Even in people born blind, the brain regions used for visual perception are still active, letting them create mental images just from verbal descriptions. Mental imagery is important for creativity in art, science, and language. Neuroscience research confirms that the brain's visual system is heavily involved in creative tasks.
  • Mental time travel: The default mode network (DMN), known for its role in mental imagery, lets us mentally time travel, remembering the past and imagining the future. This helps us calm our minds and produce creative solutions.
  • Counterfactual thinking: GenAI tools excel at producing content by studying the data on which they were trained. But they can't imagine alternative scenarios like humans can. When we imagine different outcomes, it sparks new ideas. Humans are highly skilled in counterfactual thinking, hypothesizing “what if” scenarios. Our brain has unique circuitry that works together for both spontaneous and more deliberate counterfactual thinking.
  • Empathy: Humans have the capacity for intuition, emotion, cultural sensitivity, and the ability to infer the best solutions from past events. Consciousness affords humans the unique capacity for emotional empathy, which contributes to spontaneous innovation by sparking novel ideas or gut reactions.

These four abilities are part of what we call organic creativity, where creative ideas can come to us spontaneously, without us even trying (think of this as that “eureka” moment). What’s more, humans have various and unique ways to express creativity—like creating other creative machines, sculptures, or other tangible art, and improvising in groups.

AI Creativity: The Rise of Generative Models

Human ingenuity has brought about a range of AI tools like ChatGPT and DALL-E, which can produce text, images, and videos. These tools work by following set rules and patterns learned from vast amounts of data. And they can process and analyze large amounts of data very quickly, without getting tired like humans do. While humans have limits due to energy constraints, GenAI can work nonstop.

GenAI is skilled at creating high-quality content and completing tasks more quickly than humans. Some people argue that generative AI isn't creative because it needs human input and works based on set rules, not experience or inspiration. Yet, studies suggest that AI can be creative by itself, like when Open AI’s GPT-3 writes poetry, stories, and code.

So, questioning whether GenAI is creative becomes a matter of semantics. These tools can contribute to the creative process and generate new materials on their own. Instead of debating creativity, let's understand how the creative process of generative AI works.

Shared Capabilities and Uniquely Human Features

Both humans and GenAI have skills that help with creativity, like making unrelated associations and learning by imitation. GenAI can make these connections by analyzing large amounts of data quickly to find hidden patterns and generate new ideas. Humans do this through memory processing, where we recall and reinterpret information stored in our long-term memory to create new solutions.

GenAI can handle repetitive tasks and decision-making by “imitating” the data they analyze to learn new knowledge or skills. Humans, too, are skilled at imitative learning, but what sets us apart is our deeper appreciation of human intention. When we imitate others, we use a complex array of brain mechanisms like visual perception, short-term memory, social cognition, empathy, and agency. This allows us to not just copy but also understand and improve upon what we've learned. Therefore, humans can use, shape, and adapt what they've learned to be creative and innovative.

And unlike humans, generative AI lacks real-life experiences and empathy, which are important for innovation. Creativity isn't just about novelty—it's about solving problems and improving efficiency. Without human experiences and understanding, GenAI tools may struggle to identify or replicate the impact of innovation effectively. What’s more, creativity relies on emotions and timing, which GenAI's lack of empathy may hinder.

Challenges and Opportunities in GenAI’s Creative Impact

People have differing views on how GenAI affects creativity. On one hand, there's concern about the sheer volume of content flooding the internet, generated by AI models. On the other, there's recognition of the potential for collaboration between humans and AI in creative endeavors. And this collaboration can enhance creative capabilities by combining the strengths of both parties.

Humans bring creativity, intuition, and experience to the table, helping to set goals and ensure alignment with business goals. GenAI can provide support with tasks like data analysis, trend prediction, and resource optimization. This partnership, often referred to as collaborative intelligence, envisions a symbiotic relationship where both humans and generative AI continuously learn from each other. Humans remain essential for evaluating content quality, refining models, and applying outcomes.

Innovation often emerges at the intersection of different fields. By combining human and AI efforts, new ideas can surface. This collaboration can augment human capabilities, increase efficiency, and facilitate higher-value work. More importantly, it leverages the computational power of AI alongside human intuition to drive innovation forward.

Key Takeaways for Companies

  • Embrace the combination of GenAI and human creativity to boost efficiency.
  • Create plans to distinguish between AI-generated and human-made content, while maintaining ethical standards.
  • Value, support, and invest in human creativity's unique qualities, such as intuition and understanding of social and cultural contexts, to drive innovative solutions.

To read the full paper, click the image to download the PDF.