By now you may have probably heard that Lenovo has hired actor Ashton Kutcher as a product engineer. Yes, the very same company that produces the ThinkPad line of business notebooks, IdeaPad laptops and netbooks, as well as Android-powered smartphones, now employs the thirty-something That 70’s Show actor to build technology products.
Forget that Kutcher recently played late Apple founder Steve Jobs in the 2013 Jobs biopic. Acting the part of technology visionary on screen and actually building technology products and gadgets that people will use are totally different things.
However, let’s not discount Kutcher’s potential contributions to technology just yet. Lenovo’s recent move does have some merit to it. Sure, businesses have established partnerships with celebrities before. For instance, BlackBerry took on singer Alicia Keys as a creative director, while digital imaging firm Polaroid appointed Lady Gaga with the same designation. Taking on a big celebrity as a product engineer may actually have bigger implications over and beyond simply endorsing the Lenovo Yoga.
For one, Kutcher isn’t exactly underqualified to be involved in a product engineering role. He has made about $100 million in successful investments in several ventures like Skype, Foursquare, Uber, Airbnb and Path. He also admits to having majored in biochemical engineering in college before eventually pursuing a career in acting, which might indicate some aptitude towards building stuff.
But going beyond celebrity endorsements, venture capital investments and having millions of social media followers, the real merit to these partnerships does not exactly come from the technical side of things. Rather, we can perhaps consider the arts and humanities as the more important reasons why a big technology firm like Lenovo could benefit from having an artist as a product engineer.
After all, it was Steve Jobs himself who said that “technology is not enough” at least in the case of Apple’s corporate DNA. “[I]t’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities” that is important, especially in a world where mobile devices have grown to be an ubiquitous part of human life, moreso than desktop computers or even laptops. Therefore, while someone from a purely technical background can build something with the best specs possible, it would take someone who has a better sense of his human side to design the product for a better user experience.
Kutcher himself said so much in a recent interview with Mashable Tech. “The reason our lives are turning over to these devices is we have the ability to have an action behind an impulse,” he said, referring to how devices like tablets and smartphones have become a primary means of accessing content. “So not only are they the content delivery system, they’re the action system. And we can deliver people the best possible action they can take at any given time across mobile devices.”
Getting an artist to be involved in building technology goes much, much deeper than simply providing human feedback and giving endorsements. Artists can actually become more creative in thinking of how to innovate, compared with engineers. Gulay Ozkan, writing for Quartz, quotes Singularity University’s VP for innovation and research, Vivek Wadhwa: “The biggest enemy of innovation is the expert.” It takes an outsider’s perspective to have a new form of “thinking, being and questioning.”
She explains how a non-expert would often “ask silly or simple questions” to which an expert, in turn, can “explain the technology with much higher clarity.” This results in using metaphors to resolve technical problems at hand, which can become “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.”
Suddenly, hiring celebrities to build products does not sound like a crazy idea at all.