Isaac Asimov was right, as usual
Published by António Lopes on October 27, 2014
Categories: Personal, Random, Science, Society

In 1959, Isaac Asimov wrote this essay on creativity, postulating on the elements that fostered creativity in humans. As usual, he was right and I have a story from my PhD that somehow proves his statements.

The story proves the baseline argument from the essay: isolation is definitely necessary but it’s the informal discussions within small groups that allows the teams to nurture novel concepts and apply abstract ideas to other environments.

At the beginning of my PhD, when I was dwelling around algorithms to improve the location of resources in absurdly large distributed networks, I wasn’t really able to produce anything of value and the only good idea that I had (in theory) proved to be catastrophic. The work environment at the time wasn’t helping, since there were too many distractions. So, I decided to force some isolation to really analyse the problem and try to understand why my previous idea (that seemed so reasonable in theory) had such bad results.

I started thinking of nothing else but complex search algorithms in distributed networks. I visualised them in my head. I went to sleep with those in mind and sometimes even dreamed about them. And little by little, a new idea started to form. Not only that, but I finally realised why my previous idea would never work.

While developing the new algorithm (which proved not only to be better than the previous idea but also better than the current state of the art), I also came up with the idea of a new data structure that would optimise the way the algorithm would store and search data. After the implementation, when I tested the algorithm with and without that data structure, I was marvelled at my genius for creating such an elegant and efficient solution.

It was only when I presented the results to my advisor that he stated: “this data structure that you created here is nothing more than a more complex instance of a Trie“. “A Trie?”, I asked. “Yes, a Trie, a data structure that has existed for decades”, he replied.

So much for “marvelling in my genius”. But at least I was satisfied that I reached the same conclusion as some brilliant scientist several decades ago. But this shows that isolation  only works up to a point. Sharing your ideas with others is still necessary.

A few months later, my advisor suggested that the department should do some seminar sessions in which all the professors and researchers presented their work to foster  discussion and originate potential partnerships in our research areas. So, in the following weeks, we did exactly that: everyone would present their work to the rest of the department and at the end, the interested parties would discuss the issues further to help generate new ideas or form new partnerships.

By the time it was my turn, I had already implemented my new algorithm with the Trie data structure and was quite happy with the results. However, after presenting my work, when I was discussing the algorithm with a smaller group of colleagues (that have never seen my work before because they work in completely different areas), two of them suggested simple ideas to try and improve the performance of the network as a whole that it never occurred to me.

At first I was like: “How dare they? Thinking they can improve my algorithm which they have just learned about…” But even though that thought crossed my mind, I tried to implement their simple ideas. And surprise, surprise, I got an almost 30% increase in the performance of the network behaviour.

I was happy with this, of course, but what bothered me the most was the fact that I didn’t think of that before. And I realised that this was the by-product of isolation, again. While isolating myself to look at the problem I forgot to see the problem from another angle, with the mind of a person that is looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes. And these colleagues that were looking at my work for the first time had simple solutions for things that I didn’t even think of.

So, yes, Isaac Asimov was right in 1959. Creativity is the result of focused and isolated minds that are not afraid to, every once in a while, gather and discuss abstract ideas that contribute to the collective improvement of the whole.

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