Monday, 2 June 2008

Science and Serendipity

In the past, many scientific discoveries and technological solutions have come from a non related source of information. From Archimedes’ realisation in the bath, to the accidental discovery of penicillin, history is full of occasions where going outside the subject in question has provided answers to scientific problems. When you really think about it, in many ways humankind, technology, and scientific understanding have been propelled forward, significantly, by luck alone. 
 
Many great individuals have been personally responsible for some of the most important discoveries of all time. Often, their discoveries were the result of sharing information with a friend or colleague from another field, who was able to introduce a new angle to the problem, opening up the eyes of both parties to new possibilities. Or, someone will change their field, bringing knowledge and experience from a previous career into the new subject and then approaching problems from a unique perspective. Today’s prime example of this is Aubrey DeGrey’s computing background giving a new perspective to the concept of aging. 
Many major breakthroughs have been created this way, by going outside the realms of the problem itself, drawing upon the knowledge of something else to find a solution. It’s often something that is not done purposefully, so, more often than not, it doesn’t happen. Chemists might plug away at a problem for years, not realising that the answer lies in zoology. The solutions to nanotechnology might lie in quantum physics, or perhaps just mathematics. There are so many possible avenues that perhaps there are problems that we will never solve, due to us never taking the correct path to their discovery. 
This is obviously not acceptable. Relying on chance meetings of elites from different fields coming up with solutions will likely keep human progress to the speed of the 1800s, whilst working on problems for which solutions already exist is a ridiculous waste of time, especially if you want to stay ahead of Actuarial Escape Velocity. Thankfully, the internet brings a lot of information together and keeps the relevant people informed on progress. With the advent of huge, web based amateur communities and special interest groups, much news and information is shared amongst those with common goals, helping the spread of information. 
However, the spread of information alone is not enough to ensure efficient solution development. We need intelligence to process the information, bright human beings to integrate concepts, related and otherwise. Even then it is a case of trial and error, relying on the ingenuity of the brightest and best to chance upon solutions from their usually random integrations. This is still not really ideal. 

What is needed is a system to solve this problem. The system may not be fully efficient until the creation of the first AI, which will be able to integrate any number or combination of concepts at lightning speed. Before then, however, it is certainly possible to improve on the current system of chance. We drastically need something to aid the thinkers of our world in coming up with new discoveries. 
Wikipedia has so far come as close as I’ve seen to such a system, bringing together information that is linked together, and constantly kept up to date by human beings. However, the information is linked together by relevance, so discovery and development that can be credited to non-related concepts are still only going to be from human intervention. It’s unknown if we’ll ever be able to make a system that organises information in a way that finds the missing links of relevance, but perhaps something can be created to assist humans in doing it.


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