Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Posthumous Rebutal

A recently published piece by Isaac Asimov titled On Creativity partially rebuts my previous post. Here's a key excerpt:
To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.
I agree with all of Azimov's essay. It resonates truth according to my experience, e.g., I'm most productive collaborating with people in front of whom I am not afraid to look stupid.

So how to square this with the reality that research is funded by people who care, to some degree, about ``return on investment''?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'll make a pop culture analogy. I'm currently enjoying the series The Knick, which is about the practice of medicine in the early part of the 20th century. In the opening scene, the doctors demonstrate an operation in a teaching operating theatre, using the scholarly terminology and methods of the time. The patient dies, as all patients did at that time, because the mortality rate of placenta previa surgery at the time was 100%. Over time procedures improved and mortality rates are very low now, but at the time, doctors just didn't know what they were doing. The scholarly attitude was one way of signalling ``we are trying our best, and we are striving to improve''.

We still don't know how to reliably produce ``return on investment'' from industrial research. Azimov's point is that many mechanisms proposed to make research more productive actually do the opposite. Thus, the way forward is unclear. The best idea I have at the moment is just to conduct myself professionally and look for opportunities to provide value to my employer, while at the same time pushing in directions that I think are interesting and which can plausibly positively impact the business within a reasonable time frame. Machine learning is highly practical at this particular moment so this is not terribly difficult, but this balancing act will be much tougher for researchers in other areas.