Bill Roth, Ulitzer Editor-at-Large

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Serendipity – good design or good luck?

Serendipity is one of those great words in the English language – I am not sure why – perhaps its how it sounds & the flow of syllables, or perhaps just what it means which makes it so appealing – the act of finding or discovering things by accident. Most people love it when a serendipitous event happens to them. I was recently introducing my kids to Google sky map on my phone & we were discussing meteors & shooting stars. Ten minutes later we were in the car & my daughter pointed out the window & asked me “is that the type of thing you were talking about Dad?”. It was a spectacular fireball in the sky, the likes of which I had never seen before – serendipity at its best.

Serendipity has played an important part in our history. What is evolution – the survival of the fittest – if not serendipity in full flow?  All those miniscule, random modifications to DNA some of which are harmful – some of which are beneficial – ultimately leading to stronger gene pools and competitive advantage.

Serendipity has played an important part in scientific discovery also – Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, the story behind Newton’s discovery of gravity and the invention of microwave ovens are just some examples.

While fortuitous events are one way to progress scientific discovery, for obvious reasons we can’t rely on them to drive every new step forward  – unlike nature (evolution) we don’t have the time to wait around for something randomly fortuitous to happen. As such we have learned to draw inspiration from Nature leading to new fields such as biologically inspired engineering also known as Biomimicry. Here scientists look to nature for ideas on how to improve the design of machines & products. My favourite is how they have taken inspiration from the upturn in the feathers from the wingtips of birds of prey (such as hawks) and applied it to modern jets. If you look at modern jets they invariably have an extended ‘upwards pointing’ section at the tip of their wings while older jets do not have this. The advantage this brings is in reducing drag and comes as a direct result of cross-fertilising ideas from two different disciplines – engineering & biology. In fact many new discoveries are driven by cross-fertilising ideas from one domain with that from another. Genetic algorithms are another example that comes to mind. The problem is that usually we don’t have the luxury of knowing where to look for inspiration (as with Biomimicry) and experts in one domain do not have the required background knowledge of another discipline to understand the opportunities it offers and innovation is slowed or even lost as a result. Therefore we must create environments wherein the likelihood of such discovery & innovation is speeded up. We need an ecosystem for innovation where the overall search space is reduced.

In organisations we have thousands of people in different departments and groups working on problems each utilising different terminology, skill sets, knowledge, and experience using their own and shared resources to come up with solutions and very often each is unaware of what the others are working on, what new content they are each producing and what innovative solutions they have devised. Opportunities for sharing information, learning from colleagues & cross fertilising ideas to aid discovery & innovation are often nonexistent.  (note reinventing the wheel is another serious symptom of this problem but this is another story).

There have been numerous attempts to increase information sharing in organisations and to make it more accessible to employees:-

  • Conventional search has been spectacularly unsuccessful as it will only return specifically what it is asked for, for example if I search for information on ‘heart attack’ I will not find documents containing conceptually similar ideas such as ‘coronary artery disease’. It cannot help me discover new things and if I don’t already know ahead of time what others have been working on & publishing and (importantly) the language they used to describe their work – I am unlikely to find it.
  • Taxonomies and Ontologies were developed to address such issues as this but these are extremely time consuming & expensive to build and maintain over time. In addition where the goal is to increase innovation & encourage out of the box thinking it is totally counterproductive to constrain employees to conform to the ‘norms’ & conventional thinking imposed by taxonomies!
  • Social tagging (folksonomies) is another approach but it takes time to build a critical mass of tags before it is useful and additionally in a work environment people are reluctant to spend time marking up documents.
  •   Machine learning and pattern matching algorithms have also been deployed but often they lead to spurious / unrelated associations & correlations among content and it is frustrating for users to sift through the dross.

Sophia is different – it has been deliberately designed to act like an innovation catalyst by automatically identifying content that is conceptually similar to a users query. In this way it intelligently draws together content from different domains that contain similar underlying principles to enable the cross fertilisation of ideas among domains & groups. It delivers this without the reliance on background knowledge structures (taxonomies). This is achieved through the building of its core engine on a model of linguistics called Semiotics and also the related principles of Intertextuality. This enables Sophia to understand the meaning of information in context and to relate relevant information that is described using different terminology or language models (as is the case with people working in different domains). For example, Sophia can identify that the wing tips of birds of prey have a similar function to those on jet planes or that a reel on a fishing rod has a similar mechanism of action to the release-hold mechanism on a hand brake. The ability to intelligently pull together conceptually related content from disparate domains in this way reduces the search space for users wherein they can find answers to vexing questions, increases their ability to understand the meaning of content presented and catalyses the cross fertilisation of ideas from one domain to another, speeding up innovation and encouraging discovery.  

Is this Serendipity?  Well, not quite. Serendipity implies an accidental or fortuitous discovery -  I prefer to use the following definition of serendipity – ‘the ability to discover information that is unexpectedly relevant’ – when thinking about Sophia’s intelligent search. It is by good design not good luck…

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Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.