One Plus One Equals Three…

Yesterday I spent a wonderfully stimulating evening at the Royal Institution in London, listening to the well-known broadcaster, teacher and journalist James Burke give a lecture entitled 1+1=3. His was the second in a series of three events on innovation that have been guest-curated for the Institute by Aleks Krotoski around the theme of ’Connections’, and Burke is perhaps most famous for his three similarly titled and seminal documentary TV series from 1978, 1994 and 1997. In those programmes, he charted the causal chains of ideas and influences, people and inventions, across the breadth of human history.

(Incidentally, all of the Connections series are available for free on Burke’s YouTube channel — which is, frankly, one of the most brilliant things I know of on the web :)

His lecture was very much in the same vain — clever exposition of some profound concepts (of cognition, prediction and complexity) combined with elegant, frolicking skips through history and excellent story-telling. It culminated in an extended consideration of the possible impact of nanotechnology and the notion that we might be less than fifty years away from gaining the ability, as individuals, to make anything we need — from energy to food to any object we can imagine — from cheap abundant raw materials and for very little cost. The implications of such a capability and the impact of such abundance on society, culture, politics and the very meaning of value are truly profound and deserve a separate post (it’s the kind of speculative socio-technical scenario I love, so I may well try to write up my thoughts on it sometime soon).

However he also presented something else I’d like to talk about here, something more of the tangible now:

About half way through his lecture, Burke announced that he’s been spending some of his spare time working on a piece of software in collaboration with some volunteer programmers from mindmapping company The Brain. He then demonstrated a system that looked like essentially an indexed database of his life’s work researching connections between people, ideas and technologies — some 28,000 of them I think he said — with a visualisation that allows the user to traverse the links, switching the focus from node to node and uncovering new connections in the process (somewhat like the ‘MatchMe’ feature of the Technology Strategy Board’s innovation network ’_connect’, which is a project I’ve been involved with for the last couple of years).

It was quite impressive, and would be even more so if the system had an API that would allow others to create experiences and interfaces using the data (I asked him whether it had one during the Q&A, but his answer was a bit vague and I’m not sure he understood the implications of my question (my bad!). But perhaps the guys at The Brain have got it covered — I’d be interested to know…

Anyway, there were two things he said about the system which I thought were particularly noteworthy: the first was his inspiration for creating it, and the second was a hope for its potential.

His intention is to create an experience that allows students, of all disciplines, to better understand the serendipity involved in the process of innovation itself — the unpredictability of the paths it takes and the strange, unforeseen downstream impacts that new things have. He hopes it will generate in students an understanding that multi-disciplinarity is important. That the no-man’s-land between specialisms is the true birthplace of new ideas.

I think he’s on to something here. Just traversing the connections, as he did for much of his talk tonight — from loading camels to the development of the English language; from improving naval navigation to the invention of toilet paper — filled me with the sense that we are the product of just the potentials that we have managed to discover so far. And that given the right awareness of the endlessly churning exchange of ideas and knowledge going on in the world, nothing is certain yet anything might be possible.

His hopes for the system’s predictive power, however, I found more problematic. He made the argument that it might be possible to use the tool to map current connections, and to determine which connections are likely to yield important breakthroughs. By way of illustrating this concept he showed some examples of people who were mostly connected to others in the same general field, but who had interesting connections to someone in a very different area of expertise that had resulted in some major transformational technology. His argument was, (and sincere apologies if I misunderstood this), that identifying those ‘surprising’ cross-disciplinary connections might provide us with indicators for potentially important breakthroughs. Now, I can’t help thinking that there is an element of hindsight-bias in this. Those extraordinary connections may well not look so unusual were we to map a person’s connections right now, without the filter of history working to isolate the connections that proved important in the long run. Furthermore, with levels of research collaboration at the point where some academic papers have hundreds of cited co-authors, and with inter-disciplinary research becoming more or less the norm, a map of 28,000 connections might only encompass a few hundred people. 
However, thinking about it further, maybe there is still such a thing as ‘surprising’ cross-disciplinary connections. Maybe such connections are created through serendipitous means, through personal relationships or chance meetings, and maybe they could be isolated from other kinds of connection. Perhaps, if people using a system like _connect were to indicate their social relationships to other members of the network, as well as their professional relationships, we could filter for that and identify connections that were worth paying closer attention to. Or maybe we could help convert such connections into collaborations by supporting such efforts in some way.

That might be very interesting indeed…


Originally published at suspendedjudgement.net.