The Role Of Imagination In Creating The Next Set Of Breakthrough Innovations

277371 277371 l srgb s gl 1 The Role Of Imagination In Creating The Next Set Of Breakthrough Innovations

I stumbled across “As We May Think,” an article that Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush wrote in 1945.

This article validates for me the role that imagination can play in the innovation process. Dr. Bush was able to predict in part what the world would look and feel like many years into the future. Here’s what I learned from his approach to ideation and how we can use it to assist in our own quest for using imagination to come up with innovations of the future.

Before trying to predict the future, understand the present

First, Bush thoroughly analyzed the present day (mid-1940s) situation, including what WWII had fostered and what it hindered, from the perspective of scientific inquiry and progress. He shared his thoughts on the state of scientific research and where science had seen progress and where it stood still.

Identify potentialities by extrapolation

He then extrapolated into the future by identifying the potentialities in the progress made, and shared what he though would happen in the near-to-short term if things had continued on the same trajectory. This is where he talked about immediate and imminent progress based on what was already happening. Most futurists and trend predictors use this process to forecast their trends.

Now, let your imagination fly

Once he built a good, solid foundation by identifying the progress made and what was expected in the near-to-short term, he then allowed his imagination to take flight. He talked about the camera becoming so small that someone would could carry one strapped onto their foreheads (sounds to me like a GoPro):

The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut.

He then explored and explained what the film and printing process would look like:

Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.

He imagined advances in micro-film technology that would enable the whole of Encyclopedia Britannica (one of the largest book collections at that time) to be available on something the size of a matchbox.

The Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van.

The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent.

In addition to storing all of this knowledge in a small size, he said it is also important to create new knowledge and do so in an easy and simple way. He talked about a device into which someone speaks (in a specific way) and the device converts this into the appropriate text (sounds a lot like voice-to-text devices – Siri?)

To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution. To consider the first stage of the procedure, will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record? He does so indirectly, by talking to a stenographer or a wax cylinder; but the elements are all present if he wishes to have his talk directly produce a typed record. All he needs to do is to take advantage of existing mechanisms and to alter his language.

He then took flight in his imagination to put all of this together and predict what it would feel like to live in an era with such devices:

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.

He acknowledged that a lot would need to happen between 1945’s reality and his imagined reality, but he was confident that it was all possible. He showed how past progress implied that the pace of innovation and creativity would only accelerate, meaning his imagined reality would not be very far from the time he was writing the piece.

Next he described mathematical inquiry and his definition of a mathematician:

A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.

This is probably the closest definition that I have come across for a data scientist. Bush said machines would do actual mathematical calculations and enable the mathematician to think about a higher order of logic. He also understood that the potential of such a machine is not limited to the scientist.

The scientist, however, is not the only person who manipulates data and examines the world about him by the use of logical processes, although he sometimes preserves this appearance by adopting into the fold anyone who becomes logical, much in the manner in which a British labor leader is elevated to knighthood. Whenever logical processes of thought are employed – that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove – there is an opportunity for the machine. Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students’ souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine.

I think this sounds like a general purpose computer or even a smartphone. He then goes on to imagine how a retail store could be run if all these innovations became a reality. It sounds a lot like an ERP system running the entire store and its operations.

He also predicted that machines can be taught to learn and operate, not just on selection by indexing, but by association, and that machines would be able to beat humans (the story of IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy?) – what’s called today machine learning.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

He described a personal machine (he calls it “memex”) that stores all the information and data that we need as individuals (including all the knowledge that humans have accumulated over the centuries) and is available whenever a person wants it. Information would be accessible by associative indexing (sounds like hyperlinking to me), which would allow us to move across connected and relevant topics.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English longbow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Sounds a lot like a combination of Google, Wikipedia, and Evernote to me.

He then goes on to talk about the fact that science is a tool that could create weapons and innovations that could not only enable humanity to keep track of its history, but create a completely new future as well.

Applied imagination

In a single 1945 article, Vannevar Bush imagined so many innovations that we enjoy today, seven decades later. He imagined things similar to GoPro, selfie sticks, Google Glass, ERP systems, digitized Encyclopedia Britannica, search engines, note-taking in the cloud, voice-to-text and text-to-voice conversions, personal computers, mobile phones, and much more.

This shows that if we start from the place where we are today, apply our imagination, and take leaps of faiths, we can imagine what the future will look like and then go after this future with all our current strengths.

This ability to imagine is critical for all of us who wish to be part of the generation of innovators who will define what and how our future shapes up.

How to develop this ability to imagine

In “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity,” Scott Barry Kaufman talks about three kinds of neural networks – the Executive Attention Network (activated when we need focused attention to do something specific), the Imagination Network (also called the default network), and the Salience Network (acts as the “switching” network and decides which neural network needs to be activated when).

… the Default Network (referred to here as the Imagination Network) is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.” The Imagination Network is also involved in social cognition. For instance, when we are imagining what someone else is thinking, this brain network is active. The Imagination Network involves areas deep inside the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe (medial regions), along with communication with various outer and inner regions of the parietal cortex.

Conclusion

What this tells me is that the ability to imagine is inherently human and we are all capable of letting our imagination soar, if we want to.

So, the inability to imagine new or alternate realities is totally self-induced – and sometimes induced by our systems (e.g., education and even the culture of our organizations). This also means that it is in our very hands to set this right and start imagining alternate realities. The more we practice, the better we will get at it.

The more important it is for us to innovate and create, the more critical the skill to imagine alternate realities.

When Vannevar wrote this piece, it was a time where technological breakthroughs were imminent.

We are again at the same crossroads & technological breakthroughs are imminent. The question we need to now ask is:

Will we bring in the breakthroughs, or will we stand and wait for someone to do it for us?

PS: You can view a visual tour of Vannevar Bush’s Work below:

More predictions: AI will make customers and employees happier – as long as it learns to respect our boundaries. Learn more about Empathy: The Killer App for Artificial Intelligence.

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