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The Mother of Invention

I once sat on a plane at Phoenix airport waiting to return home at the end of a business trip. The pilot announced that our flight was delayed due to a problem with the flaps, a detail which qualified as TMI (i.e., “too much information”) judging from the anxiety it caused among the passengers. Those of us on the left side of the plane had a front-row view as an aircraft mechanic climbed a ladder, examined the wing, and produced what looked to be a roll of silver duct tape. As word of this spread through the cabin, there was a palpable increase in that anxiety.

I later learned that the mechanic was applying a very specialized aviation tape which is commonly used for repairs like this one. The constraints of time and money associated with modern air travel necessitate some creative solutions, and the industry has responded. Necessity, as Plato is thought to have said, is the mother of invention.

A literal translation of Plato’s Republic (375 BC) reads “our need will be the real creator” which somehow never caught on. The more familiar “Necessity is the mother of invention” did not, as some believe, originate with Frank Zappa, who changed the name of his sixties rock band – The Mothers – out of necessity (his record company demanded it). History tells us that the phrase was coined in 1658 by Richard Franck - long before rock music - and was later attributed to Plato. Regardless of who said it first, the idea that human creativity forges connections between seemingly disparate facts, bringing forth new and innovative ideas, is ageless.

Humans are the dominant species on the planet in part because we are more inventive than the other guys. Sometimes this is spontaneous (like grabbing the nearest rock and throwing it at a charging beast) and other times it is consciously planned (like building traps to catch wild animals while we are safe and secure in the home-cave). Creative thinking can lead to positive outcomes – beyond not getting eaten – on a personal, social, or economic level.

Creative hobbies and interests bring personal satisfaction and social recognition, and creative problem solving helps us navigate through life. Rare geniuses like Einstein, da Vinci or Galileo often come to mind when we think of creativity, but it is everyday ingenuity, accessible to all of us, that often brings personal fulfillment and advances in society.

While thinking creatively is something we can all do, “creativity” is often associated with a clear objective output, like a new invention. In the workplace, the personal and economic recognition for this creativity often involves a U.S. Patent, a right awarded to the creator of something that is new, useful and non-obvious.

Engineers, who often make their living thinking creatively, are the driving force behind many of these patents. Their creativity is generally enhanced by the tools which they have been trained to use – laboratory tools, measurement instruments and computer modeling software. Of late, that computer software can involve Artificial Intelligence.

Some tasks, like creating new materials or finding promising drugs, can be enabled by sifting through enormous masses of data to uncover patterns. In these cases, AI is yet another powerful tool used by scientists and engineers to shorten the path to a creative solution. If I crunch my data with an Excel spreadsheet, we can all agree that Excel is not an inventor on an eventual patent. Likewise if AI reduces huge quantities of data to a manageable set of relationships, it is similarly just another computer tool.

But what happens in the future as AI learns to mimic creative thinking more creatively - could it eventually be the inventor? UK Professor Ryan Abbott, who is also a patent attorney, is one of several lawyers working on the Artificial Inventor Project. Ryan has also given a lot of thought to when AI might transform itself from a tool to a bonafide inventor. Meanwhile, the US Patent Office has been soliciting and evaluating comments on this topic.

Clearly, the current patent laws were not written for inventors who are anything other than people. Inventors must be “natural persons” - animals are forbidden to hold intellectual property, as was determined in the “monkey selfie” case. Inventors have legal obligations (e.g., entering into contracts, authorizing licensing, and perhaps filing lawsuits) which require membership in the human race. It is unlikely that AI will be recognized as an inventor any time soon, at least not until an inventive patent examiner sees it as a necessity.

Once AI truly is an inventor, not recognizing it as such creates a bit of a moral conundrum. The person who switched on the AI system will be forced to lie, or just forget the whole thing. Although humans at some point had to write the AI software, feed it data, and train it, no one is quite sure how an advanced AI system reaches its final conclusion (see “A Random Walk with Artificial Intelligence”). Machines that think can really get you thinking.

Given the progress in AI, it seems inevitable that sometime in the near future, Plato’s attributed axiom will be changed to “Data is the Mother of Invention.”

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith- leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.



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