Technology and abstraction with symbolic reasoning have defined the human species from the beginning of historical times to present: language, art, mathematics, software, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing. The Babylonians used an abstract system of symbols and a novel and ubiquitous recording medium to record the “Big Data” of the day — namely financial accounts and political records. Some of the brilliant minds of 2,000 years ago even dared to relate how a mathematical abstraction could be used to describe the movement of Jupiter across the heavens and dutifully pressed the ideas into a most durable and convenient recording medium, the clay tablet.
Learning the Cuneiform script took scribes years of study and some of their practice and lesson tablets have survived to this day but few people can read them anymore – we have moved on to ever higher levels of language and technology abstraction. But the Babylonian mind map still deeply effects how we perceive one of the most important abstractions of all – time. Wait a minute, yes that’s 60 seconds worth of the fourth dimension and what about that hour of waiting that sometimes seems to take forever – that’s 60 minutes. Of course our minds can estimate time passing and project forward and backwards through our memory space, but why do we carve it up in fractions of 60? And why do circles define 360 degrees of the plane? Abstractions are powerful tools for thought and literally shape how we perceive reality. The Babylonians chose a mathematical system based on 60 to take advantage of its many divisors (1,2,3,4,5,6,10,12,15,20,30,60) which made calculations much easier, more efficient and accessible in a very practical sort of way. There are biological and preferential limits to memory and the history of technology is a history of our attempts to magnify and augment both our mental and physical abilities. We are still looking at the world in part via a Babylonian mind construct.
Innovation is Never a Solo Mission
Our minds are a galaxy of connections (estimated at 100 billion synaptic junctions) about the same size as the Milky Way (if you consider its 100 billion suns) and the conceptual gravitational field that holds it together in a dynamic evolving cosmic computing structure. There is an overwhelming tendency to use analogy and simile to explain the meaning of everything. Our associative memory is the root of this obsession. Consciousness is built out of many pattern recognition engines that process an almost infinite amount of sensory data (balance, sight, audition, touch, smell and taste) then try to make predictions and decisions second to second, hour to hour, decade to decade and now even century to millennia. Today, our synthetic high performance computing architectures (high performance computers and the cloud) can rewind time back to the “big bang” some 14 billion years ago and fast forward to the conceptual “big freeze” or maybe another singularity. Computing has become a mind extension tool to explore abstractions that exceed the physical limitations of our internal processing power, but not our imaginations. We are pattern processing beings and look for order even when it’s not really there.
We are in a way defined by our patterns of connections to people, resources, transportation and ideas (for an unusual analysis see Karl Marx’s 1845 The German Ideology). Whenever and wherever we reduce the friction between our connections, our overall productivity tends to soar upward. Whether we have access to the writings of the royal scribes, the mass produced books enabled by Gutenberg technology, or the seemingly limitless internet-enabled digital libraries, our personal and social value has the potential to rise dramatically. This analogy clearly extends to the physical world where the transcontinental railway and interstate road networks led to “creative destruction” (see Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy) and a big burst in value creation just as the transatlantic communication cables did. Commerce and discourse changed in an irreversible manner. But so did perceptions and expectations.
The amazing connection machine that comes standard in every human being is only provided with the most basic of innate abilities. The brain and the body must be exposed directly to sensory data, significant training and social feedback to develop the ability to explore the depths of a piano concerto or imagine in abstraction a way to peer into the human body with X-ray, magnetic or ultrasonic fields. Innovation is never really a solo mission.
Our ability to form connections and to process information flows always comes with a series of direct costs: a data acquisition cost, a processing cost, a training cost and maintenance costs. Our open and democratic society continues to try to lower these costs and increase the ability of each individual to access the knowledge, resources, transportation and tools that magnify our ability to interact with ever more complex networks of physical and digital objects that are forming the biggest cognitive abstraction of all time — the Industrial Internet.
Technical innovation has certainly been proven to lead to many types of disruptions in business and society at large, but what might lead in the direction of continuity and longevity of influence?
- The ability to conceptualize complex ideas symbolically and recognize ever more complex patterns dynamically at all levels of hierarchical structure is critical.
- So is the ability to calculate over n-dimensional spaces of connections in a universal cognitive fabric that will extend the capabilities of individuals and groups alike.
Successful Inventors, explorers, and leaders dare to make connections from abstract idea to real world implementation where the true measure of its value is tested. The unwanted, inefficient or forced manifestations are weeded out through a relentless search to connect, process and produce in both our physical and brain-based worlds. Virtual reality promises to open up an infinite space of possibilities.
The value of connections
Thomas Edison understood the value of network connections and the power of magnifying the tools of production, knowledge and imagination on a global scale. He changed the shape of the city skyline and the nature of work by introducing electrical grids, electrical lighting and motors and appliances of all shapes and sizes. He influenced human imagination and perspectives through the introduction of audio and visual transmission and recording technologies and fostered the creation of entire industries. His curiosity was insatiable and his connections, influence and impact legendary (His friends included Ford, Firestone, and even President Harding ) while millions of customers felt they knew the “Wizard of Menlo Park” through his inventions and, in a way, his mental fabric.
The potential of a human mind to shape subsequent generations through the creation and extension of physical mediums that define and control our power, manufacturing, transportation, healthcare and knowledge networks is the “Innovator’s dream come true.” It is definitely not a dilemma to fret about (see Clayton Christensen’s 1997 The Innovator’s Dilemma).
The next generation of innovation
GE Global Research still sits at the nexus of these forces and reducing friction to move the world’s physical and digital cargo remains our mission.
At the same time we provide the electrical and mental power necessary to operate and make sense of it all through industrial strength machines, analytics and non-deterministic cognition systems.Feb. 11 marked the 169th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s birthday, in recognition of that milestone, I dedicate the future of our cognitive journey to the next generation of Innovators who will connect, stimulate and transform the minds and societies of tomorrow. Revel in the connections and the digital fabric you are creating – you are literally changing the world’s minds. As some people will continue to define themselves in the ways they shape the bits and atoms of the world, I prefer to focus my attention on the most elegant connection pattern of all – the growing and complex non-deterministic network of intelligent brains in all forms.
If you have made it all the way through this article your physical brain will never be the same. Just as our bodies are what we eat, our brains are what we process. Thank you for making this connection.