Professor Marvin Minsky of MIT died at 88 on Sunday January 24. He was one of most important scientists in artificial intelligence (AI): a field of research studying how to develop computers that simulate human thought and behavior. Minsky founded the world’s first AI Lab at MIT in 1959, along with John McCarthy.
Minsky was my undergraduate thesis advisor at MIT, and what I remember most about him was his fascination with music. I graduated in 1982 with a degree in computer science, and I did my thesis research on Minsky’s “Music Cognition” project. His grad student David Levitt was my manager, and we worked on the first-ever screen-based music composition editor. You can display sheet music on any computer these days, but in 1981 home computers could only display white letters on a black background. The AI Lab had radically different computers, with bitmap screens that could display pictures; text in different typefaces and point sizes; pull-down menus; everything controlled by a mouse (with three buttons). These advanced graphics allowed us to display music notation, and allowed composers to edit music on screen.
(BTW it wasn’t the Xerox PARC smalltalk computer, that Steve Jobs famously “borrowed” to create the Apple Mac; our computers were invented and built at MIT and they were called LISP machines.)
Minsky often worked together with Seymour Papert, the MIT professor who developed the LOGO programming language for children. They both worked in the same building in Tech Square (in Cambridge’s Kendall Square); the AI Lab was on the 9th floor and the LOGO lab was on the third floor. One day on my way down in the elevator, I decided to stop at the third floor to check it out; that was the one time I met Papert and saw the original plexiglass LOGO robot.
Back in the early days, computer scientists were idealistic; they believed in open access to everything and everyone. For example, no one’s personal files were password protected. Because I used the same computer as Dr. Minsky, I could access his folders and read every document he was working on. In 1981, I went into his folders and discovered a draft of his book Society of Mind (it wasn’t published until 1985). The book argued that intelligence emerges from the interaction of many smaller, non-intelligent entities inside the mind–something like a “society”. This concept made a huge impact on me, and I kept thinking about emergence and complex systems for two more decades. In 2001, I published my first journal article on the topic, “Emergence in sociology,” and in 2005, I published a book exploring these ideas, Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems.
That’s the kind of influence a great scholar has on the world–it lasts for decades.
A provocative claim: in any country, immigrants are statistically more likely to generate exceptionally creative works. There’s a long list of immigrant geniuses: Victor Hugo, W. H. Auden, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolas Tesla, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein. But single cases don’t make a scientific argument. Do we have any statistical data on this?
Eric Weiner gives us some numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal:
An awful lot of brilliant minds blossomed in alien soil. That is especially true of the U.S., where foreign-born residents account for only 13% of the population but hold nearly a third of all patents and a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans.
Those are some pretty convincing numbers, somewhere between a 12 and 20 percent increase in creativity among immigrants.
Creativity research has the explanation: Psychologists have shown that bigger creative insights result from distant associations–when your mind has many different types of knowledge, a diverse range of experiences. Associations between similar conceptual material also often lead to creative insights, but those are more likely to be ordinary, incremental, everyday sorts of creativity. It’s the distant associations that lead to radical, breakthrough innovation. Weiner makes a similar argument from recent research; studies show that “schema violations” result in greater “cognitive flexibility,” and that cognitive flexibility is linked to creativity.
Weiner says that it’s marginality that results in greater creativity. I wouldn’t say it that way; you can be marginal to a culture and yet not be a part of your own separate culture. The silent introvert who lives in a shack up in the mountains is marginal, but that person doesn’t bring together distinct bodies of experiences and knowledge. In fact, we know that lone individuals are less likely to be creative.
The lesson for everyone is: If you seek greater creativity, then go out and learn something new. Meet people very different from you. Travel to a really different place. Read magazines that you’ve never looked at before. Fill your mind with a broad range of really different stuff. You don’t have to be an immigrant; but we can learn from this example to help enhance our own creativity.
Creativity researchers have shown that serendipity plays a big role in creativity, and that serendipity is more likely to happen when you seek out new experiences and become more aware of what’s going on around you. My 2013 book ZIG ZAG is filled with creativity advice based on this research. One of my chapters is called “LOOK: How to be aware of the answers all around you.” I start the chapter with several examples of serendipity: how Velcro was invented after George De Mestral became curious about why burrs got stuck in his dog’s fur; how Hasbro got the idea for a toothbrush that played a two-minute song, to make sure that a child would brush for at least two minutes.
The book Inventology builds on this research, and Pagan Kennedy emphasizes the same theme as my book chapter: Serendipity is critical to creativity. (See the excerpt in today’s New York Times.) I love her examples of inventions that are inspired by LOOK’s awareness: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, and X-ray imaging. Kennedy’s main point is that you can spot these surprising connections systematically.
My 22 techniques for serendipity* are grouped into three practices:
- Use Fresh Eyes: based on research about mindfulness and about how people systematically become more lucky.
- Grab New Sights and Cool Sounds: with exercises about how to consistently experience new things that help you spot unexpected connections.
- Render It Visible: exercises that help you translate what you see into creative action.
The techniques are each based on creativity research. For example, I describe the fascinating research by Richard Wiseman on what lucky people do that’s different from unlucky people.
Kennedy ends her article by calling for a new field of “serendipity studies.” Fortunately, scientists already have a great start on understanding luck and serendipity; creativity researchers and cognitive psychologists have been studying this for many years. They don’t call it “serendipity”; they use more technical terms like analogical reasoning, distant connections, and remote associations. (If you want to delve deeper into this research, there’s a pretty extensive review in my book Explaining Creativity.) After reading the NYTimes excerpt today, I look forward to reading Kennedy’s book. She’s hit on one of the most important findings to emerge from creativity research: If you systematically seek out new experiences, sights, people, and places, you’ll be more likely to have surprising new creative insights.
*Two of the techniques in ZIG ZAG that foster serendipity:
- Flip through strange magazines. Buy a magazine that you’d normally never read (hunting, hot rods, tattoos, musical instruments…) As you flip through it, look carefully and you’ll be drawn to a few photos or stories. Think about how you can apply what you see there to your own problem.
- Cultivate your senses. Put yourself in an experience that you don’t know much about. Visit an art museum, attend a wine tasting, watch a children’s cartoon, try a new fast-food restaurant. Make an effort to figure out what’s going on, how everything works to create a complete experience.