21 September, 2012

Challenges in expanding the pie

In this country, we face an acute problem of saturation. Just about anything has intense competition. Scarcity (natural or artificial) is rampant and it is not uncommon to see people fight desperately over stakes that are trivial when compared globally.

And hence, about a decade and half ago, when I started my career, I adopted a personal philosophy: expand the pie, don't fight for a share of it.

It was evident (to me) that unless we make the available pie bigger, any amount of competitiveness is eventually going to hit a barrier. And being literally resourceless and broke, the only option available to me for helping in expanding the pie, is to take up a career in applied research.

Several years down the line, looking back at a very turbulent journey so far, it is time to reflect.

Firstly, do I regret anything? Absolutely not! It has been an absolutely invigorating journey and even successful in bits and pieces. Second, do I think that "expand the pie" belief was untrue? Absolutely not, again. Time and again we keep seeing news stories of us getting into saturation mode (fuel, power, garbage, jobs, traffic, etc.) and unless we build a vast culture of pie expanding enthusiasts, we only stand to face huge crises in the future.

But then, expanding the pie is easier said than done. We cannot start looking at ways of expanding the pie after we are hit by a crisis. We should be well prepared long before. The best times to prepare for war are in times of peace, as the saying goes.

Here are some of my experiences and lessons learned in trying to expand the pie:

You will encounter vested interests 

We have all the technology required for providing voice telephony using the Internet as the backbone and reduce international telephone tariffs to a small fraction of what they are today. Yet, that does not happen.

When we expand the pie and create a new solution that threatens to obsolete some existing technology, expect to get your idea killed. Expanding the pie is way more involved than just creating new technology.

And before ranting against huge telecom corporations, ask yourself what would you do if you have painstakingly built a company over several decades, which employs hundreds of thousands of people and you are suddenly faced with the prospect of a disruptive new idea that can make your company collapse in no time?

Beware of the fear of the unknown 

Expanding the pie necessarily means venturing into the unknown. We may think we are adults, but we don't realize that we are adults only when we are in familiar mental territory. The moment we are in the unknown, our primal fears surface in ways that we cannot even fathom.

I have not seen a single researcher worth his salt, who has not been paranoid at some time or the other. Scientists may appear emotionless, and indeed you may even find several of them advocating dispassionate and objective thought. But, the process of development of science is anything but dispassionate and objective.

Also, the way people react to the unknown is very unpredictable. They may suddenly become unusually defensive or offensive, get into a closet and refuse to communicate, take big decisive actions rather on an impulse, and so on.

Your intentions will be misinterpreted 

Come to think of it -- the herd is moving in one direction and fiercely fighting over that little piece of bread, and here you are walking away in a different direction...

Of course, your intentions will be misinterpreted. You will be seen with suspicion, your integrity will be questioned, people will put up safety nets against you, call you weird, will secretly want to see you dead, and what not.

Expect it. At least then, you will not be hurt too much when you encounter it.

Remember the Gandhi quote without the last line

Remember this saying?

First they laugh at you
Then they ignore you
Then they fight you 
Then you win..!

Remember that well, except the last line. Replace it with, "And then you claim victory..!"

When you expand the pie, you will not necessarily get a share of it.

Gandhi himself did not live long enough to really see the independent India that he fought so hard to bring about.

When you develop good ideas that successfully question status quo -- it will eventually get adopted. But you will most likely not be in the picture there (even if you are alive and kicking..)

Expect to be muscled around, handed ridiculously one-sided contracts to sign, being told that your ideas are obvious and trivial, being sweet-talked while your students and coworkers are getting poached, the list goes on..

Be aware. Don't compromise. Be ready to lose what you have and always remember that your real wealth is within you -- your ability to think and develop ideas. Keep working on that ability and see to it that it never gets sidelined in all such worldly nonsense.

10 May, 2012

Convergent and divergent thinking

Suppose we are asked this question: "What is the square root of 5?" How would we go about solving it?

We would start by narrowing the scope of our search. Obviously 2-squared is 4 and 3-squared is 9, and so the answer should lie between 2 and 3. In fact, 2.5-squared is 6.25, so the answer should be between 2 and 2.5. Also, 2.2-squared is 4.84 and so the answer should lie between 2.2 and 2.5.

This way we "converge" to an answer that is close enough to the required solution.

This kind of thinking is characteristically called convergent thinking. In such thinking processes, we are looking for "a" solution. Our process constitutes taking into account several factors, combining them together, eliminating what is not necessary, fine tuning what we already have, until we arrive at the desired solution.

Now consider the following kind of problem. Take an object that you can see -- say a pen. Now come up with as many possible uses of the pen as you can think of.

This would of course, include the "standard" use of a pen -- to write. But then, we could use a pen for a variety of other purposes. Maybe we can use it as a measurement device to measure the length of a table in pen units. Maybe we can use it as a lock to hold an open window from closing. We can perhaps sell the pen and get some money. We can use a pen to hold rubber bands in place. And so on..

When I ask such questions, one typical response is "anything goes" as an answer. But that is not true. In fact, if you were to state that "we can eat the pen" as an answer, it is wrong (for a typical pen). So, it is not that "anything goes" is an answer. There are correct answers and incorrect answers. But the thing is, there are several correct answers!

This is an example of what is called divergent thinking. In this style of thinking, we start from a given problem state (the pen, in the example above) and try to fit it consistently in different worlds.

Divergent thinking is a necessary ingredient for any kind of design activity. Suppose you have to design a car. All cars have more or less the same components -- an engine, transmission, wheels, steering, seats, etc. But then, not all cars look and feel the same. A Brio is different from an Alto, which is different from an Indica, which is different from a Verito, and so on.

The way these different components can be put together, so that the end result is an efficient, ergonomic, sturdy and safe automobile, are several.

For some reason, we have forgotten to inculcate, teach and nurture divergent thinking in our curricula. I find the dearth of divergent thinking especially acute among techies.

Sometimes I have heard this argument that the emphasis on precision, especially in mathematically inclined fields like science and engineering, is detrimental towards divergent thinking. But it is not very convincing.

Divergent thinking also requires a lot of precision. Especially, when there are physical constraints involved. For instance, consider again the task of putting together different automobile components to design a car. We can think of putting them together in several ways. But, each such combination has precise bearing on the overall performance of the car. One combination could be more efficient than the other in terms of fuel usage, but more expensive in terms of overall cost. Another combination may make the car safer to drive, but may make it inefficient. And so on.

So, divergent thinking does not imply lack of precision.

There is also another mental block I've often seen -- that which equates divergent thinking to shallowness, and convergent thinking to depth.

A convergent thinking process may go deep into a subject, but that does not make divergent thinking shallow. Besides, there is nothing macho about "depth;" it has its own follies. Let me explain with an example.

Recently, we were conducting interviews for a graduate program, where the incumbents all had an engineering degree. As part of the interview, I posed two puzzles to each candidate -- one which required a convergent thinking process and another, which required a divergent thinking process.

There was this candidate, who swore by depth. He had been interested in some specific subjects in the curriculum and had done vast amounts of reading and exploration on his own. So much so that his performance in other subjects suffered and he had failed in a couple of them. It was however, evident that his interest in the subjects that he liked, were genuine. He spoke at length about signals and signal processing and the projects he had worked on his own. He clearly had depth in his understanding. His main peeve was that our education system does not encourage people who are "truly passionate" about learning, as his couple of failures in subjects that he didn't care about, had proven to be a hurdle at every step.

I could definitely empathize at some level, with such sentiment. But then, when I posed the puzzles, I was in for a surprise.

His performance in the divergent thinking puzzle, was understandably bad. I had given 30 seconds for him to come up with as may answers as possible. But he remained silent for 30 seconds thinking (deeply?), and came up with 3 answers, all of which revolved around electrical engineering solutions.

Not much surprise there. The real surprise was with the puzzle requiring convergent thinking. His performance was equally bad there too! The reason was not hard to see. This puzzle required him to think in terms of permutations and combinations to arrive at an answer. But, given any problem, he just tended to think in terms of signals and signal processing!

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

That is the problem with focusing only on depth and treating it as a macho trait. It just conditions our mind to think within a single paradigm.

In contrast to the above, was another candidate, who was nothing spectacular in terms of her grades. As expected, she did not fare too well with the convergent thinking puzzle. But when given the divergent thinking puzzle, she immediately rattled off with some 15 solutions in 30 seconds -- 2 seconds per solution on average! At the end of it she says, "That was fun!!! If you gave me 30 more seconds, I'll come up with several more answers!"

And her answers came from a wide variety of scenarios -- from technological solutions to business solutions to household use to emergency care and so on. Many of which caught me completely by surprise and yeah, it was fun!

Divergent thinking requires us to keep hopping between mental models. As I had argued in a previous post, changing mental models frequently is an emotionally draining process. When mental models change suddenly, it takes a while for the brain to understand and compute repercussions; and our initial reaction is an emotional one. A large variety of humour is based on suddenly changing mental models with trivial repercussions -- our initial reaction would be emotional, in terms of laughter.

There is another theory I have heard that divergent thinking constitutes the "female" style of thinking while convergent thinking constitutes the "male" style of thinking.

Apparently, men think of the world in terms of neatly separated boxes, each of which are distinct and separate from one another. And for women, everything is connected with everything else and they can keep hopping from one subject to another with much more ease than men.

Well, then, it must be a male who made up such a theory -- that categorizes thinking styles into neatly separated boxes called male style and female style. And according to this theory then, females should not accept this theory of neat separation of thinking styles into male style and female style. If they do, then they are male. :-)

Needless to say, I am not very convinced by such "neat separation" theories. I think everybody has both styles of thinking -- convergent and divergent -- perhaps expressed to different levels. Someone may be pre-disposed towards convergent thinking, but that does not mean that they cannot think in a divergent fashion at all. And vice versa.

But more fundamentally, I think, convergent theory is a special case -- a focused kind of divergent thinking. If you are familiar with game theory, this is somewhat like pure strategies and mixed strategies. In pure strategies, you choose one action among a given set of actions. In mixed strategies, you choose all actions with some probability. There is no dichotomy between pure and mixed strategies. The space of mixed strategies subsumes pure strategies. Pure strategies are just a special boundary case of mixed strategies.

Similarly, thinking is about making connections. So compartmentalized thinking is not different from connectionist thinking. It is just connectionist thinking within a single mental model.

If we keep the mental model intact and keep connecting things together within the model, we eventually achieve depth. If instead, we allow for connections to span across mental models, we achieve divergent thinking.

05 February, 2012

Thinking across mental models

Mom: Son, it is 7 'o clock already. Get up! You are getting late for school

Son: I don't want to go to school Ma.. The teachers don't like me and all the students laugh at me.

Mom: Son.. that is no reason to skip school. You have to go to school -- besides, you are the Principal of the school!!


I know it is an old joke, but why is it funny (even if it is a PJ)?

The reason why this story is funny is that, out brain does its thinking typically within the framework of what is called, a mental model. The mental model determines what "ground truths" or unchallenged assumptions, will guide our reasoning process. 

The "semantic memory" in our brains is responsible for giving inputs that form these ground truths. The ground truths represent significant concepts relevant to the situation, and relationships among them. 

For instance, in the above story, we would have typically assumed that the Son in the story is a student who has to go to school. 

And when the Mom says that "...you are the principal!!", suddenly this new piece of information brings down the entire model that we had at the back of our mind, and causes it to create a whole new consistent model. Now the Son is the Principal and yes, the Principal is likely to be bothered by the teachers not liking him and the students laughing at him. 

This sudden change in the model and its associated implications unnerves the brain, prompting it to give an emotional reaction. But since the new model essentially has trivial consequences, the emotional reaction that our brain provides is laughter. 

On the other hand, horror stories are also made of sudden changes in mental models. Except in these cases the new mental model that replaces the older one tells about serious implications -- causing the brain to react with terror. 

For instance, there were news stories about what transpired inside the airplane IC814 that was hijacked when it left from Kathmandu to Delhi in December 1999. Some people stood up and walked in the aisle and calmly announced that they are taking over the plane. And a lot of passengers thought that it was a routine security drill. And you can imagine the terror they experienced when they realized that this was for real. 


Our brain builds mental models because it is too difficult (perhaps impossible) to have one global set of ground truths for the entire universe and take into account all of them for arriving at conclusions or explanations. 

For instance, consider that we are watching a cricket match where we see a fielder miss an easy catch. We respond to this by giving typical explanations based on typical assumptions. "Perhaps the sun got into his eye" (and if he is an Indian cricketer), "Indian players are all too-old/complacent/tired/overworked/overpaid/do-too-many-advertisements", etc.  

But, would it be possible that there was a very mild earthquake, too small to be reported, but causing enough disorientation in someone who is looking up at the sky, to make them miss the ball they are trying to catch?

Strictly speaking, it is possible and we should ask for seismographic data for that time and place and study the impact of earthquakes on people looking at the sky and... etc. But, we typically don't go down that path because this explanation is not probable

In fact, we don't even think of this possibility. It is so improbable an event that our mental model would have effectively blocked it out of the set of ground truths that we work on. 

Another major source of mental model change is when we change our emotional dispositions. Our emotional disposition determines our dominant emotional reaction in any given situation. It also determines the kind of explanations we build, in response to observations.

And that is a reason why emotional roller-coasters are so damn exhausting. If we change our emotional disposition in quick succession, each disposition brings with it a mental model, giving us different explanations of the same observations, thereby enormously increasing confusion. And that is also the reason why we find it hard to "think straight" in emotionally charged situations. It is not just the rush of hormones, we do experience semantic confusion in times of emotional turmoil.


Learning to think across different models is an important element of "growing up." 

As children we typically have a single mental model and life appears very simple. In fact, children up until they are about maybe 5 years old find it hard to understand jokes like the above that involve sudden change in mental models.

Thinking across mental models is an important skill to develop. Strictly speaking, every conversation involves understanding the mental model of the other and adjusting our own. Differences in mental models amplify depending on the different experiences that each person in a conversation has. Mental models can vastly differ based on gender, geographic location, community culture, economic status, and so on. 

However, learning and even more importantly, teaching to think across mental models is a very difficult task. Once our deeply held mental model is challenged, our primary reaction is to perceive it as a threat and become defensive. And too much of a pressure to adapt our mental models can leave us emotionally scarred since once our deeply held beliefs break, we do not know what to hang on to and what parts of our lives so far are suddenly on uncertain ground. 

Similarly, if you try to teach someone to think across mental models by challenging their assumptions, they'll only start fighting against you. The more we have built our lives on our assumptions, and the less exposed we are to diversity, the more reluctant we are to anything that challenges them.