Friday, March 16, 2012

Laziness is the Mother of Innovation

By Keith McDowell

“Please pass the popcorn!” was a phrase often heard in the basement of the Chemistry and Metallurgical Research (CMR) building at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the late 1970s and early 1980s as my good friend Dr. Jim Doll and I watched small circles bounce around on top of other small circles on a computer monitor. It wasn’t the same as watching Star Trek, the prequel, but then we were having our version of fun simulating the diffusion of a single adatom on a metallic surface using a molecular dynamics program developed by Doll. We had grown tired of endless lists of numbers printed out on the ubiquitous green-striped computer paper and decided to simply observe the motion of the attached atom. For theoreticians, it was a novel concept to actually observe an experiment, even if a computer-generated one. Of course, the popcorn helped! Beer would have complemented the ambience, but then alcohol and national labs don’t mix.

While watching our homemade movie, we noticed that the attached atom occasionally hopped not just to a neighboring site, but jumped several surface sites in one correlated motion. Wow! Maybe we had just observed a new phenomenon to be explained. We certainly couldn’t blame it on seeing double from being inebriated!

To satisfy our curiosity, we wanted to fit the data to a rather complex mathematical form, but knew that the fitting subroutine deck of cards was on the first floor of CMR and required passing through a “booty area” to get there. Did I mention that the CMR was a nuclear materials facility?  Taking the flimsy booties with the elastic band on and off of our shoes was a real drag requiring a delicate balancing act, so Doll suggested creating a random number game to determine the fit. We did just that without ever moving from our chairs and “simulated annealing” as a fitting procedure was invented. Laziness, not necessity, won the day! Unfortunately, neither of us bothered to publish the method. We would have been the first to do so. We thought it was too trivial! In the mid-1980s, simulated annealing rapidly became a classic method found in the bible of numerical methods, Numerical Recipes, a surprisingly best selling book. Oh well, such is life! I’ll blame it on the effect of eating too much buttered popcorn.

But the story doesn’t end in the basement of CMR! In 1985, I had an opportunity to visit an old friend, Dr. Dennis W. Bennett, at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. After a great meal in a German restaurant and several beers, Dennis was talking with me about x-ray diffraction and refinements of the R-factor, basically a measure of the resolution of a crystal structure in terms of the observed location of the atoms versus the calculated location. I mentioned to him the possibility of using the simulated annealing method using random numbers as a means of improving the R-factor instead of the usual deterministic methods. After demonstrating the method on his computer with some simple code, Dennis became very excited and intrigued by the method. Subsequently, he developed simulated annealing computer code for x-ray diffractometers as a commercial product that ultimately was sold and installed on many instruments in many laboratories.

Knowledge diffused, innovation occurred, and a product emerged. On that we can agree, but what is innovation and what caused it to occur? What was the actual act of innovation or did several occur? And who gets credit? Furthermore, is such an amorphous act of innovation going to show up in someone’s metric as a measure of innovation? Indeed, is this the manner in which most innovations occur? Wow, this isn’t easy. One thing is certain. We proved that laziness is the mother of innovation, not necessity – or did we?

“Hello, dear, how are you feeling today? You must be angry! You’re pounding my keyboard too hard.” Such was the conversation between a “psycho-friendly” computer and its operator during a 1980s newspaper comic strip. My apologies to the cartoonist, but I’ve been unable to find the original source for this even after hours of googling. I particularly remember this comic strip and its concept of a “psycho-friendly” computer because of the conversations it engendered on having a computer that could do your work for you. Just tell it the nature of the discovery or innovation that you want next and enjoy your popcorn while the computer toils away. Is this a fantasy? Can such laziness really be the mother of invention?

Well, yes! United States Patent 6185534 entitled “Modeling emotion and personally in a computer user interface” can be found online and describes such a “psycho-friendly” computer. Indeed, as reported at on 10 February 2009 by Reuters in an article entitled “Einstein Robot Head Dazzles Tech Conference,” the “empathetic robot” was described as one that “pushes the boundaries of automation by being able to interact with people using emotional nuances.” Hmm, I’ll pass on the “nagging wife” version of the robot, but think of the limitless choice of personality types that could be made, especially in the context of a virtual reality interface driven by one’s directed thought commands, eye movements, or other such actions. It would be a “hands-free” environment. How else are we going to eat the buttered popcorn?

Even better, the barrier of having a computer (or robot) do our discovery and innovation work for us has been broken. Victoria Gill, science reporter for the BBC News, informs us in a story on 4 April 2009 entitled “Robo-scientist’s first findings” that “The robot, called Adam, is the first machine to have independently ‘discovered new scientific knowledge’.” She further reports that “Ross King from the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University, and who led the team, told BBC News that he envisaged a future when human scientists’ time would be ‘freed up to do more advanced experiments’.” Actually, I was hoping to be freed up to climb more mountains, visit great restaurants, be lazy, and still get paid. If such a state of affairs isn’t “laziness as the mother on innovation,” what else is it?

Absent the psycho-friendly, discovery-capable computer, the modern era of information technology and the Internet offers us many other examples sufficient to further inform and possibly prove our assertion about the true driver of innovation.  For example, we have open source innovation sites where one can post problems and permit crowdsourcing to dissect the known pathways and create new pathways for achieving insight into a solution or innovation. Obviously, such an approach is nothing more than a social network version of a discovery-capable computer ala “Adam.” And best of all, we don’t even have to take a bath, shave, don our geek suit of clothes, or travel to the office as we pursue new discoveries and innovations from the comfort of our Lazy Boy recliner using our wireless iPad.

How much more proof do you need? It’s a changed world as we invent and create new approaches for discovery and innovation. It’s the 21st century where laziness has replaced necessity as the mother of innovation! Oh, and please pass the popcorn before you finish reading.

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