Monday, February 16, 2015

A Q&A With Kevin Ashton
Kevin Ashton led pioneering work on RFID (radio frequency identification) networks, for which he coined the term "The Internet of Things," and co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT. His writing about innovation and technology has appeared in Quartz, Medium, The Atlantic, and the New York Times. Kevin pioneered the sensor-based technology that powers smart energy grids and advanced metering — the systems at the heart of clean tech today. He even invented the name for this field, "The Internet of Things", which has become one of technology's hottest ideas.

Ashton agreed to a Q&A with the TC blogger about his debut book and the ideas in it.

What is the difference between creativity and invention?

“Creativity” is a fairly new word, less than a hundred years old. It became popular around the same time as the idea that creating was for people called “geniuses,” who had moments of epiphany and solved problems by not really thinking about them. None of that is true, and “creativity”—some magical property that only a few people have—probably isn’t real.

“Invention,” on the other hand, most definitely is real. You only have to look around. Pretty much every thing you can see has been made or changed by the human intervention we call “invention.”

Why is creativity a myth?  If anyone can be creative, does that mean that everyone is equal, and if so, what does that do to the myth?

The ideas that some people called “geniuses” (usually “white men”) are the only ones that can create, or that creating happens in “Aha! moments,” or that the best way to solve problems is by not thinking about them are all myths, and that’s a polite way to put it. There is no plausible evidence to support any of these ideas, and plenty of strong evidence to refute them. They are supported only by a few tired anecdotes, all of which fall apart when you look closely. One example is Coleridge’s composition of the poem “Kubla Khan,” which he claimed to have composed complete in a dream. In fact, we have an earlier draft of it, and Coleridge made lots of changes between the draft and the final poem. I guess he may have started it with a dream, although this too is unlikely, but he certainly finished with ordinary thinking. As for everyone being equal, the answer is yes, of course, and also no, of course of not. We are equally important, and we all have creative abilities, because creating is innately human. That does not mean that we are equally good at creating, just as we are not all equally good at, say, jumping or running; but we can all create, and most of us are probably much better at it than we realize.

Can you explain the idea "We see what we think."  And how does that fit in with creativity and invention?

Chapter Four of How to Fly a Horse discusses the perception changes we most often call “discovery.” That’s where I write about how we are prone to “seeing what we think, instead of seeing what is.” In short, our brains tend to filter out any unexpected things that our eyes detect, in favor of things we assume, and, as a result, we often don’t notice stuff that could help us create. One example of this is the discovery of stomach bacteria by Robin Warren, an Australian pathologist, in 1979. Everybody in medical science “knew” bacteria could not survive in the stomach because it was “too acidic.” This was confirmed by the fact that no one had ever seen bacteria in the stomach. And yet, after Warren saw stomach bacteria through a microscope, and eventually convinced everybody else that they were there, doctors and scientists went back through their records and realized the bacteria had been in their samples and photos all along. They had not seen them because they assumed they could not exist. Warren’s discovery led to the development of successful treatments for stomach ulcers, long believed to be caused by stress and diet, but in fact a result of bacterial infection. And we know now the stomach is full of bacteria, most of which play important roles in keeping our body working. And that’s all because one person saw what was there, not what he thought was there.

Are we getting more creative or are we just getting better at seeing it?

Humans are innately creative. Birds fly, beaver build dams, humans look at their tools and say, “I can make this better.” Creating is our principal instinct, and the reason why our population has grown from a few hundred thousand people fifty thousand years ago to almost 8 billion today. Our individual creation instinct has not changed, but that population growth means we are more creative as a species—8 billion people can create more things than two hundred thousand people—and, because we inherit creations from previous generations, the fact we have been doing this for fifty thousand years means we are building on, and benefitting from, a vast body of prior work. Today we live much longer, far more comfortable, lives than our ancestors, with more time, tools, understanding and information than they had, because of the technology they developed. That makes it easier to create new things for our descendants to inherit.

What are the pros and cons of "ah-ha" creativity and "step by step" creativity?

There’s probably no such thing as “Aha creativity.” People who believe in it are never very productive or successful. I meet them all the time. They say things like “your book is wrong, I have all my best ideas in the shower.” And then I ask them what they do. And the answer is always the same: they are working on something or other, but it is unfinished, and therefore unsuccessful, and it is seldom enough for them to earn a living. Because they believe they can only create when and if inspiration strikes, they waste a lot of time trying to cultivate the lightning—time that they could be spending actually creating. “Step by step” thinking accounts for all creating. We see a problem, try to solve it, evaluate that solution, find problems with it, solve those, and repeat. Sometimes one of those solutions seems particularly good, and people may mistake that for an “Aha! moment,” because they have heard that is how creating happens, but in fact everything comes from incremental steps.

Can you explain the idea "The nuance of new.”?

“The nuance of new,” is a phrase from Chapter Six of the book, which talks about the unexpected consequences of creating. Our instinct to make new things comes with built-in checks and balances: we also have an instinct to evaluate new ideas very diligently, and to try to imagine what the risks of a new technology might be. That’s why you often hear people say things like, “don’t you think artificial intelligence will take over the world?” or “won’t kids using iPads all the time lead to a generation that has no real friends,” or whatever. You can go back through history and find worries like this—often, quite apocalyptic worries—about many new things. But the consequences of new technology of are usually impossible to predict. It is even hard to see what they are after the fact, and they seldom all good or all bad. One example is the invention of the automated loom at the start of the nineteenth century, which threatened the jobs of weavers, as well as the system of apprenticeship that had developed around the textile industry, which was a forerunner of public education. The weavers, many of who rebelled by joining a movement we today call “the Luddites,” were worried that that the new looms would mean worse lives not only for themselves, but also for their children and grandchildren. In fact, the new technology led to complex economic changes that created a new demand for workers who could read and write, which led to the rise of mass literacy. At the start of the 1800s, almost no one could read; at the end of the 1800s, almost everyone could read. The rise of literacy then led to the rise of education in the 1900s. At the turn of that century, almost no children went to school; at its end, all children not only went to school, and a growing number went to collegetoo. It sounds unlikely, but, if you can read this, you should thank an eighteenth century miller who bought an automated loom. That’s the nuance of new.

Is technology a threat?  Is it true that we can solve a local problem but might cause global problems in the doing?

New technology is a threat; no technology is a catastrophe. Yes, new tools bring new risks. There’s no point downplaying that. But there’s no point downplaying the benefits either, and they are far greater. We could not survive for more than a few days without tools. We don’t have the right kind of teeth to process food grown without agriculture, or the right kind of gut to digest most naturally available water, or the right hides to survive in most environments without shelter. And we need to keep improving our tools because our growing population and our existing tools bring new challenges that need new solutions. So, we don’t just need tools to survive, we need to keep improving our tools to survive. And, yes, many of today’s tools bring benefits in one place and problems in another. Aluminum is great unless you live in a forest that is being razed to build a bauxite mine; peak electricity from natural gas is great unless you live in a state that has an increased risk of earthquakes because of hydraulic fracturing; bacon cheeseburgers are great unless you are a pig or a cow. One of the great challenges of the twenty-first century is to create technology that puts the benefits and problems in the same place. The rise of information technology and the not-unrelated rise of humanism have made us conscious of these types of problems, and now we must solve them. Even climate change, which we tend to think of as a global problem, has different initial symptoms locally: polar and coastal areas, for example, are already suffering.

What do you think about the possibility (or reality) that money or politics are limiting/hiding/controlling creative ideas?

Oh, that’s a reality. Wealth is a consequence of creating technology, and politics is a way to control and distribute wealth. (That does not mean the wealthiest people create the most technology, which is something you sometimes hear and seldom true, only that wealth in general is a result of creating in general.) And that causes problems. I’ve known some really rich people, and most of them, while apparently nice are, deep down, obsessively focused only on getting richer; I wouldn’t even call it greed it’s so bad—it’s more like hoarding or alcoholism. They don’t know why they do it, they just can’t help themselves. And what that means is that they will protect what makes them wealthy at any cost, and justify any behavior to protect whatever psychological sore spot it is that makes them behave that way in the first place. It’s like when Frodo gets all weirdly protective of the One Ring. All nice until they snarl. And that messes with our ability to evaluate and solve problems. Climate change is today’s prime example. You won’t find a climate change denier who hasn’t been either directly rewarded or indirectly influenced by a handful of people who enrich themselves selling fossil fuels. Climate change is not only obviously real, it is also a problem with some pretty obvious solutions. We can actually fix this. We are now too late to prevent it entirely, but we can mitigate and eventually reverse its effects. What’s standing in that way of that is a relatively small number of people who got rich selling carbon and, when push comes to shove, those few people will always prefer wealth to truth. They use money and politics to stall the development of implementation of solutions to the problems or carbon emissions, just as other people before them have done when faced with other problems that threatened their wealth and power. They will lose in the end, but the delay is dangerous and deadly. And that’s just one example. All politics is a battle for the fruits of creation.

Can you explain this quote: "Invention and creativity, as we have seen, we are all in together?

That’s another line from Chapter Six; in this particular case, it is part of a section describing how the production of a can of Coke draws on ingredients and ideas from all over the world. We may think of “globalization” as a new phenomenon, but is, in fact, thousands of years old. A can of Coke contains creations from every part of the planet except, perhaps, Antarctica. It’s an example of how we are all connected, across time as well as space, in an amazing community of creation.

What new creation are you most interested in, or surprised by, at this moment?

Advances in astrophysics amaze me. Our knowledge about the universe is growing exponentially, probably to the point where we’ll find life on other worlds sooner than we expect. Back on earth, I love how quickly self-driving electric cars are developing. They will soon free us up to do better things than sit uselessly in traffic (for example, more napping! reading more books from the Tattered Cover!), and will help mitigate climate change. My very favorite thing though, is how the spread of literacy, education, and information is destroying patriarchy, raciarchy, the gender binary, and every other hierarchy and social classification scheme based on misperceptions about personal differences. We still have a way to go, but we have come very far already, and at an unimaginable speed. We are an amazing people. Our future shines so bright you can see it from here.

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