CCCC VS AI (or what makes us human?)

Recently there has been some interesting news on how artificial intelligence advanced into fields that have been regarded as exclusive to humans. Artificial intelligence (AI) won against humans in 'GO' , drove millions of miles in self-driven cars without self-caused accident and, even more remarkably, wrote novels that passed first rounds of literacy competitions. These technological advancements will forever change our society. As always, change comes with risks, but also, and most importantly, with opportunities for enhancement as a society. One question, in our view, is particularly interesting:

Given all the technological approximations, which traits and characteristics are exclusively human?

In this article we share our thoughts on the question above. This is a complex, multi-faceted, even philosophical question with (probably) no right answer. Consequently, this blog post is a thought provoking, non-exhaustive opinion rather than the ultimate truth. Nevertheless, we invite you to this journey.


The core of our article is that, amongst others, four Cs are exclusive to humans and, as a consequence, a differentiator to AI. Those four Cs are: culture, curiosity, creativity and compassion (with the last one we actually mean empathy but talking about four Cs makes our idea more memorable and the headline more snappy). 


Ian Leslie, author of Curious, stresses an interesting thought. As humans we started our quest some 60,000 years ago out of Africa. As species we spread to live in all regions of the world, no matter how hot, cold, wet or humid. The question is, what makes us that adaptable. "In one word, culture - our ability to learn from others, to copy, imitate, share and improve. When humans learned to communicate using oral and, later, written language, ideas, knowledge and practices ... could replicate and combine like genes" Leslie writes. 

We are 'programmed' to learn in very different ways: from parents, from peers, from experts, by trial and error, by observation, by ourselves, ... Does AI bring that diverse approach to learning to the table? How can AI simulate learning from social interaction? Can AI pass on not only data but rather ideas to other systems? Does AI actually explore fields it was not programmed to explore? This last question brings us to the second (potential) differentiator. 


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi provokes a great thought experiment in his book Creativity. How would you design an organism that is supposed to survive in a complex environment, say on our earth? Which mechanisms would allow this artificial life form to thrive?

Csikszentmihalyi argues that designing conservative organisms, that learn the best solutions and apply them over and over would be a good idea to increase chances of survival. He adds, however, that the best system would also need a relay system, that positively reinforces the discovery of something new. In other words: pleasure and joy from novelty. 

This human trait led us to where we are today. Not only did we want to know what is behind the next valley or across the river, but culture enabled us to pass on knowledge to survive in this new terrain we discovered. Does AI also have the desire to explore? Does AI leave proven paths so that not only will its algorithm defeat it's human opponents in a game of GO, but also check out the rules of other games? Will a self-driving car ever decide for an alternative route other than the fastest or most efficient one? Currently, it seems that there is no reason for AI to behave that way.


Creativity is another trait we consider unique to humans compared to AI, machines and robots. One of the most known approaches to creativity is to see it as a novel and appropriate (Sternberg & Lubart) response to a task at hand. It's using your imagination to create something new in the world (David and Tom Kelley, Creative Confidence). 

Another, somewhat unknown way to see it, is to add that the task at hand is heuristic rather than algorithmic (Teresa M. Amabile). Algorithmic means that for the task at hand there is a clear, straightforward path to solution. "By contrast, heuristic tasks are those not having a clear and readily identifiable path to solution ..." (T .Amabile). To give you an example, baking a cake following a recipe is an algorithmic way of solving a task at hand, whereas coming up with a new kind of cake is heuristic. In some cases, not only there is no clear path to the task, but there are no clearly defined solutions or goals in the first place (T. Amabile). In other words, creativity involves problem-discovery, too, not merely problem-solving.

So we wonder, can AI not only follow an algorithm by obeying to the rules and calculating scenarios to a well defined problem, but also react in situations where the path to a goal, and/or the goal itself, is not defined? Could AI respond to the task 'Come up with a new kind of novel that also relates to humans'? This last question brings us to the last C (or rather E).

Compassion (Empathy)

What is empathy? As Psychology Today sums it up "Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling." In Terms of creativity and innovation "for us, it's the ability to see an experience through another person's eyes, to recognize why people do what they do" (David and Tom Kelley, Creative Confidence). 

Empathy, our last "C", looks like another human trait that (seems to) distinguish us from AI. Machines may predict our next moves in a game of chess but can they ever 'feel' (or interpret) what we feel? If culture, curiosity and creativity seemed hard to overcome for AIs (if possible at all), empathy really seems to be the ultimate hurdle. It looks like this is the reason why the so well-written AI novel did not fully convince the human jury. Character descriptions, amongst others, seem to be hard to overcome for a piece of software. To stress this example further, it's (for now) reserved to humans to empathise with another, dream up characters for a novel and craft a story around it that is, well, human (not only grammatically correct and well structured).


This article has no conclusion but actually invites you to think about the initial question for yourself (and beyond). In a time where machines, robots, artificial intelligence enter domains and professions that were once 'reserved' to humans, it's time to think about what actually makes us human in the first place. You most certainly find other aspects that we did not cover, too.

So, what are (some of) our very core strengths that we should build upon and develop further? Maybe, one day a piece of code sets out to ask the same questions and will answer it way better, more analytical and more comprehensive than this article was able to. Time will tell if AI or other technological advancements will ever be able to compete with us in the traits described here (and others not mentioned). But for now, strengthening our strengths is our best shot and we set out to do so by exercising curiosity, creative confidence and design literacy as starting point for meaningful innovation and impact.

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Stephan Kardos