Combinatorial innovation and evolution

An analogy that has been gaining in popularity these last few years is the idea of “innovation as evolution” — a model that implies that combinations of earlier innovation are what drive innovation not entirely new unheard of technologies suddenly appearing. In a recent paper, “Invention as a Combinatorial Process: Evidence from U.S. Patents” authors Hyejin Youn, Luis M. A. Bettencourt, Deborah Strumsky, Jose Lobo show that this is indeed what innovation looks like. They write:

Arthur and Polak [38] eloquently state the combinatorial view of technological change: “New technologies are never created from nothing. They are constructed – put together – from components that previously exist; and in turn these new technologies offer themselves as possible components – building blocks – for the construction of further new technologies.” (p.23) By using patent technology codes to identify distinct technologies and their combinations we are able to systematically and empirically study the combinatorics of invention. We find that the combination of technologies has indeed been the major driver of invention, reflected in an invariant introduction of new combinations of technologies engendered by patented inventions.

The introduction of new technological functionalities plays a minimal role in fueling invention once the system is mature. Instead, tinkering, gradual modification and refinements are very important in pushing invention forward. (My emphasis)

This is quite interesting and seems to imply that what we should do is to maximize the space for just this: tinkering, gradual modification and refinement. The results are worth examining closely, and we should of course be careful with drawing to far-reaching conclusions, but the method and results at least merit consideration by anyone interested in innovation, and perhaps in creativity overall. (Image. Dan Mason)

Weil I: on the rights and obligations of free expression

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now, but something has always gotten in the way. The reason for my interest in Weil and free expression is that I re-read The Need for Roots last summer and was struck by how modern the paradox of free expression in Weil’s thinking is. And her obvious frustration with the law and its inability to handle the tensions she thinks free expression creates is also instructive in many ways of how we in our age are struggling with the very same issues. Weil notes how important it is to be able to think freely and how liberty of thought is fundamental, and:

That is why it would be desirable to create an absolutely free reserve in the field of publication, but in such a way as for it to be understood that the works found therein did not pledge their authors in any way and contained no direct advice for readers. There it would be possible to find, set out in their full force, all the arguments in favour of bad causes. It would be an excellent and salutary thing for them to be so displayed. Anybody could there sing the praises of what he most condemns.

It would be publicly recognized that the object of such works was not to define their authors’ attitudes vis-a-vis the problems of life, but to contribute, by preliminary researches, towards a complete and correct tabulation of data concerning each problem. The law would see to it that their publication did not involve any risk of whatever kind for the author.

On the other hand, publications destined to influence what is called opinion, that is to say, in effect, the conduct of life, constitute acts and ought to be subjected to the same restrictions as are all acts. In other words, they should not cause unlawful harm of any kind to any human being, and above all, should never contain any denial, explicit or implicit, of the eternal obligations towards the human being, once these obligations have been solemnly recognized by law.

The distinction between the two fields, the one which is outside action and the one which forms part of action, is impossible to express on paper in juridical terminology.

But that doesn’t prevent it from being a perfectly clear one.

And here her notion is quite clear. She wants to have two spheres of free expression – one where you explore arguments without holding the views you express, and one where you hold the views you express and can be held to account for them. In the first she wants completely free thought, in the other extreme responsibility.

You can express whatever you want as long as you do not mean it. 

It is easy to ridicule this notion, but there is something very fundamental about this thought that I think permeates also how we think about free expression today. And why is this the case? I think we intuitively realize that we should be free to explore all arguments, but that convincing people or persuading them is a different act than expressing a thought as clearly as possible. Noone would oppose a book that explained the reasoning and thought-processes behind, say, revisionism – but we all feel at some level that an attempt to convince us of a revisionist account of history is different.

There is an emotional gap between expression and persuasion that we are bothered by.

The genius of Weil’s solution is to create a frame, an environment in which there can be only expression and where persuasion is impossible per se. And then to allow anything in this environment. The early cyber-libertarians would have argued that the “new home of mind” was exactly that – that the Internet was this realm of abstract expression where complete freedom should reign. Now we know of the persuasive powers of social media, and we are much more wary of designating the web a separate domain.

At the end Weil acknowledges the tricky challenge of trying to frame this in legislation. It is clear that she realizes that if we want rule of law, we need legislation that expresses the limits of our rights and obligations, but this particular pair of rights and obligations is truly hard to frame in law. Yet still, she argues that it is completely clear. This is where I think she is wrong. Our inability to frame something in legislation actually shows us something about the clarity of the notions in our argument. Sure, there are things that are clear, but hard to frame in law — but when it comes to liberty we are probably wise to assume that if we cannot find the legal form of an argument, then the argument is just half-baked.


Finally, there is a wider point in Weil’s thinking here that I think is sometimes lost in the debate today, and a point that I think actually echoes Hayek in some sense, and that is the connection between a right and an obligation. Weil writes in the beginning of her work that duties or obligation precede rights, and that a sole human being in the universe would have obligations but no rights. Her concept of rights is a complicated one, but essentially she argues that all rights are dependent on obligations of different kinds, on an individual level. The right to express ourselves freely, in her argument, corresponds to the obligation to not try to persuade anyone of what is fundamentally immoral – and she assumes that this is evident for anyone that honestly examines an issue. This of course is an impossibly optimistic view of human nature, but at the same time a sympathetic one to a degree — if we did not know what it could actually lead to.

We could imagine other corresponding obligations, that to me seem more interesting. I had a chance to speak about this a year ago at a TEDx thing in Almedalen, and my thesis there was that the corresponding obligation to the enormous expansion of our individual rights of free speech is an obligation to listen to the growing silences of the growing number of people who are oppressed, quieted and censored  – and act to dissolve these silences, as an individual obligation.

Participating in the online symposium “Coding Freedom”

I had the good fortune to be invited to participate in the online symposium on Gabriella Coleman’s excellent book Coding Freedom. My first post in the symposium was published yesterday:

The title of the book, Coding Freedom, seems to imply that the hacker culture is positively correlated with the increase of freedom in our societies, but in fact it seems as a critical reader could argue the opposite is true. Are we more or less free today than we were at the beginning of the hacker revolution? It does really seem possible to argue that the rise of hacker culture coincides with the rise of state surveillance, filtering and the proliferation of control across the networks. Let us leave aside, for the moment, if that is statistically accurate or not and see if there are any explanations in Coleman’s analysis that would help explain such an seemingly contradictory correlation.

The book is a great read, and I hope to post one more post before the week-long symposium is over.


Management advice from Marcus Aurelius

In my last post on this subject, a little more than two years ago, I went on about how management literature often leaves you wishing for more substance or depth, and I recommended a number of books that I thought were good alternatives, or perhaps complements, to reading management literature.

Well. It has been several years, and I have managed and enjoyed it, but I must admit that the best advice I have gotten is advice not found in glossy management books, but rather the advice found in Marcus Aurelius Meditations. Since I did not mention that the last time I thought I would share a few examples:

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Cleverbot and being somewhat human…or a unicorn

Cleverbot is an interesting project that just recently crossed my radarscreen. I like the online interface, and it has also brought an interesting instance of the Turing test to my attention. In this case it is rapid fire Turing tests, where the participants rate “how human” something is on a scale from 0-100 percent. Cleverbot, in one of its incarnations, got to 42.1% human.

This highlights a weakness of the Turing test, I think. The notion that something can be somewhat human is clearly wrong, a misuse of the concept humanity. Or is it? Worrying examples from human history indicate that we think this way about enemies, other tribes and other races to an extent that is awful. We dehumanize that which we think we need to destroy, or that which threatens us, for scares us. But would any racist say that another race is just 42.1% percent human? No, probably not. It doesn’t work that way. We would probably agree with them being human or we would define them as something else. Being human might actually be far more binary than we think.

In one way, however, cleverbot is a great example of the limitations of the Turing test. But it has also produced some great humor. Witness this fantastic video on cleverbot talking to another instance of itself, to see how language sounds when it, truly, runs on empty.

My favorite comment. “I am not a robot. I am a unicorn”.

An interesting aside. Their discussion sounds very much like an old married couple arguing in parts. Myabe that is also language running on empty…

But I may be a “meanie”.


Understanding prejudice and racism online through search data

In a recent paper by Seth I. Stephens-Davidowitz Google Search Data is used to assess how much racist-sentiment affected the 2008 vote. The method is interesting, and the outcome nothing short of sensational:

The results imply that, relative to the areas in the United States with the lowest racial animus, racial animus cost Obama between 3.1 percentage points and 5.0 percentage points of the national popular vote. This implies racial animus gave Obama’s opponent roughly the equivalent of a home-state advantage country-wide. The cost of racial animus was not decisive in the 2008 election. But a four percentage point loss by the winning candidate would have changed the popular vote winner in the majority of post-war presidential elections.

Now, read the paper for yourself and determine if you agree with the methodology or not, but it does look interesting. Ultimately it becomes a correlation/causation issue to some extent, but still – interesting.

The notion that we could track prejudice and racist sentiment like this seems to open for new ways to track the dark sides of society and perhaps bring our creativity to bear on the problem of how to counter the fear and ignorance that underpins the memes involved.

Dunbar on social signatures

Robin Dunbar’s research on the social brain hypothesis is interesting. The way he describes the hypothesis it states:

The social brain hypothesis has suggested that social network size (and structure) is constrained by a combination of cognitive processes and the time required to service social relationships.

He has now examined this in a data set of mobile phone calls, and he does indeed find evidence to support the hypothesis. One report about this research has hit the news since it seems to show that women care about men until they get grand-kids, and then they care about their daughters or daughters-in-law. Dunbar even suggests it shows that Matriarchy is on the rise. I don’t know about the validity of that conclusion, but more interesting to me is the question of what the limits are. And if there are different limits to different networks. I think we may be making a mistake when we speak of one kind of social network. The social brain hypothesis may be too simple, since it seems to say that there is only one kind of social network, or at least could be seen to say exactly that. Maybe speaking of social network size is a bit like speaking of animal size. We probably should expect social networks to exist in as wide a variety as animals.

Interestingly it seems as if the more consistent element is how we engage. In fact, Dunbar has found that people exhibit distinct social signatures:

Thus, individuals appear to have a ”social signature” in that they allocate roughly the same amount of time to their alters depending on their rank, independent of who these alters are. Such signature patterns show variation between participants but appear persistent over time for each participant. This provides the first direct evidence for the claim [1, 4] that social networks are constrained in some way either by cognition or by the time individuals have available for social interaction, or both: when new relationships are acquired, old ones are inevitably downgraded.

Social networks are different, but our engagement with them consistent and produces a social signature. And social networks are zero sum. Gain a friend, lose a friend. Interesting, and somewhat thought-provoking.

Teachings of a Toymaker

Today I listened into a talk that founder Hayes Raffle gave to all the kids that gathered at Google. Besides demonstrating some really awesome toys — see the video at the end of this post — he also said something to the kids that I found interesting. His advice was this:

If you want to be a happy adult you should try to do what made you happy when you were about seven years old.

I like the notion that we never really change at heart, and I like to think that what I loved then could translate into what I love doing now. It was a bit of a reminder to always ask myself every day if I am doing enough of what I really love, of what I really care about. The mirror test that Jobs is said to have applied is a version of this, I guess. What other tricks are there out there for ensuring that you are really living the life you want? And they can be controversial. Back in 2006 I travelled in the US and met with DC Dennett who I have enormous respect for, and his recipe was the opposite. Take what you are really good at and do it. That will give you recognition, and that is what makes people happy. Don’t waste time asking what you “love” – implicitly – because ultimately you love that in yourself which others recognize you for. Reminds me of one of the more bitter epigrammes of Nietzsche: “it is not enough to have talent, is it, my friends? one has to have your approval for the talent as well.”

I think I end up on the side of the Toymaker. Here are some of his toys:


Examining persuasion: internet advertising as linguistic research tool

In “Ecological Evaluation of Persuasive Messages Using Google AdWords” the authors show how internet advertising systems can be used to test and explore the mechanism of persuasion in different ways, for example for exploring natural language processing.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in crowdsourcing methodologies to be used in experimental research for NLP tasks. In particular, evaluation of systems and theories about persuasion is difficult to accommodate within existing frameworks. In this paper we present a new cheap and fast methodology that allows fast experiment building and evaluation with fully-automated analysis at a low cost. The central idea is exploiting existing commercial tools for advertising on the web, such as Google AdWords, to measure message impact in an ecological setting. The paper includes a description of the approach, tips for how to use AdWords for scientific research, and results of pilot experiments on the impact of affective text variations which confirm the effectiveness of the approach.

A similar approach is described in the book Supercrunchers and has been used by political consultants to do message testing in a fast and relatively cheap way. As we proceed down the road I think secondary research uses can be found for a lot of the services online. The secondary uses of data allow for a wide variety of creative uses that explore language, social structures and economics. The data shadow of the web is the next frontier for many of these empirical sciences.

Besides exploring the theoretical notion the authors provide a great hands-on description of how to set up your experiment. Very intriguing.

(Full disclosure – I work at Google, but write here in a private capacity. The study was done in cooperation with Google and was funded by our research programme Google Research Awards to a part. I still think it is really, really interesting – but of course you should know those two things when reading this post!)

Thiel redux

Betsy Masiello, a colleague, disagrees interestingly with Thiel. Her main argument, which I think is sound, is that competition is not one thing. She writes:

The other thing Thiel mixes up in all this is that he sort of suggests that competition does not drive innovation when he says maybe “competition isn’t as good as we’re told it is.” I think that’s wrong, competition is every bit as good as we’re told it is. Take Thiel’s own example—one could argue that losing a competition is the thing that prompted a creative spark. Without competition, he would not have experienced loss (of not getting the clerkship), and he would not have been forced to go through a coping process, through which he wound up starting PayPal. Any seasoned athlete knows why competition in games is a great metaphor for life: “the great accomplishment is not in never failing, but in rising again after you fall.” Thiel got back up when he lost. He just decided the next time to play a different game.

I think this is right, and it high-lights an important corrigendum to Thiel’s piece. There is a difference between competition in a game and competition about what game to play. Both are very difficult but for different reasons, and the difficulties are slightly different too.

I still think Thiel’s point holds for competition in a pre-defined and well-established game, but the more interesting issue is how we compete around what game we are playing, how we set rules for our (albeit metaphorical) games. The other point is that losing in the first kind of competition spurs this second type of competition where you seek other games to play. I think that is right too.

That said, there is a lot of truth in the notion that we focus too much on playing one single game, defined by others. This is evidenced not least by Thiel first having to lose that game before he engaged in secondary competition, or game selection competition. Competition in a game is not all it is cut out to be. (Also vaguely related to his discussion around how we choose market-definitions, I think).

All in all a very interesting question. On the war metaphor I whole-heartedly agree.