Randomness as the origin of creativity

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When looking at the creative advances in technology, art, science or society that really changed the story of humanity, we see that they are all quantum leaps. What does that mean? It means that true innovation requires a departure from that which is already known. This is much more than out of the box thinking; this concerns a radical departure from mainstream thinking.

In my experimentation with random fractals I’ve come up with an interesting mechanism. By producing random shapes I noticed that some bear resemblance with shapes we see in nature. But equally and more importantly, some of these random forms I have never seen before and they are stunningly beautiful. In fact, I couldn’t create such forms myself because their aesthetic value wouldn’t occur to me until after their creation. But I am able to appreciate them for what they are once I see them.

What if this is the very mechanism of creativity?  The combination of random experimentation combined with our ability to recognize a valuable solution when we see it?

In other words, keep messing around until you find it.

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I’ve been a student of creativity for the past 30 years, always looking for ways to stimulate creativity when needed. In the West I have found that Edward de Bono gets closest to providing a reliable method for creative thinking. He calls it lateral thinking and his methods are based on the idea that most of our thinking is linear and associative. Every thought we have leads to the next thought and so on. But if the breakthrough thought that we need is not connected in any way with any of our habitual thoughts, we can never think of it. And by definition breakthrough thoughts haven’t been had by anyone so they will never link to anyone’s thoughts if we follow linear thinking.

Lateral thinking is based on deliberately breaking associative and linear thinking. De Bono proposes many methods but they all rely on generating unconnected random thoughts. yes, random thoughts.

But in the East, the approach to creativity is contemplative and involves different forms of meditation. It would be impossible to provide a fair one line summary of eastern creativity but my incomplete one liner would be that we put ourselves in a state where a creative need is communicated to our subconscious mind which has a generative capacity that by far exceeds our conscious brain. When the subconscious mind finds a creative solution, it will pass it back to the conscious brain and provided that we are mindful, i.e. are paying attention, then we will have a near perfect answer to our creative challenge.

But my random genetic fractals tell an intriguing story which has its parallels. Creativity is about detecting original solutions among those we haven’t seen as yet. And we can find those unseen solutions by “closing our eyes” and generate them randomly.

This leaves us with two challenges. How do you create random solutions?  And how do you recognize a good solution when you see one?

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For the first I have an answer. But it isn’t simple…

Underneath these genetic fractals is a genetic code. The genetic code, exactly like DNA drives the forms and features of these genetic fractals. So all I have to do is change the genetic code randomly and the genetic fractals will take on any form. Literally: any form. If I wait long enough they will create a bunny rabbit.

The same approach will work for any other domain. You can create a genetic code that underlies mathematics and by modifying that code randomly you will be able to find original mathematical formulas. You could create a genetic code that underlies movie scripts and generate truly original story lines. You can do this in music, mechanical engineering or for cooking recipes.

But now for the hard part. How do you recognize a winning solution, design or work of art when it has been created? In the case of genetic fractals, I only have to look through hundreds of random images and pick the ones that look great.

For music this would be doable if I’m only looking for short riffs or gorgeous jazz chords. (Note to self: try this next)

But mechanical engineering or maths would be harder. How do you test a thousand random formulas for their usefulness? How do you assess hundreds of engine designs to pick one that is actually great?

Underlying this challenge of recognizing winners is the need for expertise. If we don’t understand Jazz, we won’t recognize the next Herbie Hancock when we hear it.

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So, perhaps not surprisingly, we can only be creative in areas of our expertise and experience. This brings up an interesting corollary. If we create something that we are not able to appreciate because we lack experience then chances are that someone else that has the experience would be able to recognize it for us. Therefore, we should surround ourselves with people that are smarter than ourselves so that we get the most out of our creativity and get better in the process. This makes a case for gurus and teachers.

But there is an even more interesting extension to this line of thinking. What if we create something that isn’t just beyond our own experience and ability to recognize for its innovative value but that is also beyond the cognition of any living human? What would happen is that the “invention of the century” would remain fully unseen and be lost.

This is a bit like showing your iPhone to a cat. Franklin, or whatever your cat is called, will only see a slab of something flat and hard. Or a more relevant test would be to travel back to the 1970’s and show your iPhone to some kid there. They would be astonished at your tiny flat TV set but the concept of Internet, mobile technology and social media would remain completely incomprehensible to them.

This inability to spot innovative solutions happens more than you may think. How often do you hear about some budding entrepreneur that has made a killing out of some ‘invention’ and your first thought is: I could easily have done that myself. Yes, you could have done. You might have done. Except that you didn’t and couldn’t have recognized the opportunity when it was staring you in the face all that time.

Louis Pasteur who discovered antibiotics by chance said “chance favors only the prepared mind”. He was absolutely right and we probably know it. Yet, much of human endeavor functions in an anti-deBonian fashion. We will insist in looking for the next best idea based on something cool we just read about. Forget it. It won’t work.

Get random and create.