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Equip Yourself for Creativity

Equip Yourself for Creativity

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A privacy issue of XRDS couldn't be better timed. Given the rapid and continuing revelations about the NSA from Edward Snowden, anything we write here might be out of date by the time it reaches you. One piece that we feel will remain relevant—unless, and until, a paradigm shift occurs in the mathematics behind cryptographic technologies and/or in the international culture around privacy and human rights—appeared recently in ACM Queue. In his column titled "More Encryption Is Not the Solution," Poul-Henning Kamp makes a rigorous argument that is well worth a read. Instead of focusing directly on the issue at hand, we wish to start a discussion we hope will equip readers to come up with out of the box solutions to the privacy problem, or any other for that matter.

The foremost things that the Human-Computer Interaction Ph.D. Program at Carnegie Mellon seek in applicants are past academic achievement and creativity—not incidentally the subject of the previous issue of XRDS. They tell prospective students CMU won't be able to supply more creativity and that these two factors are the most important factors in predicting a successful research career.

While a Ph.D. program is about digging deep, research supports the idea that having a breadth of knowledge enhances creativity. This idea isn't new; it's the subject of numerous conference keynote addresses and graduation ceremony speeches. It's easy to suggest to someone they should try to learn about lots of different things. But actually getting someone (yourself) to do that is somewhat harder.

To get some motivation, we asked a couple of the most creative and successful graduate students we know what was the single most valuable course they took in undergrad. Topping the list were philosophy courses covering classics like Plato, Socrates, Descartes, Sartre, and Kierkegaard. These philosophers speculated on the nature of reality, how we trust that others aren't mere figments of our imagination, and more. The value of such courses often does not come only from the specific ideas they cover, but from the way they are described and discussed.

In our unofficial poll we found a surprising number of computer science majors enjoy philosophy courses. Both fields focus on conjuring rigorous logic from the thoughts of the writer. Computer scientists write code that either compiles and runs correctly, or does not. The creative challenge is in sorting out how to go from nil to a functional program. In philosophy, it's up to the reader to figure out if there are any "bugs in the code"; that is, does the argument make sense? What are the assumptions it relies on (the "operating system," if you will)? It's not a coincidence that one of the most profound philosophical results of the 20th century came from logician Kurt Goedel, who had a thing or two to say that informed modern computer science theoretical work as well.

Training your mind to root out logical fallacies and recognize assumptions behind arguments is an enormously powerful exercise that will help you to think critically about all knowledge you encounter. Philosophy (and no doubt other fields) will give you the toolbox you need to think critically about ideas from just about anywhere else.1

Students, and in particular graduate students, are accustomed to hearing about lots of creative projects coming out of academia. We're continually amazed at the ones we hear about that come from off the academic grid.

It's not a coincidence that one of the most profound philosophical results of the 20th century came from logician Kurt Goedel, who had a thing or two to say that informed modern computer science theoretical work as well.

Paola Santana is a cofounder of Matternet, which will maintain a fleet of drones (autonomous aircrafts) to deliver medicine to villages in the developing world where there are no physical roads leading to them.

Marc Roth is starting a business that's outfitting shipping containers (like the ones that are used on trains and cargo ships) with computers and 3-D printers. He's training homeless people to operate them and sell their products for a source of income.

Aereo was sued for taking over the air television and allowing customers to stream it online. Broadcasters argued in court that this wasn't the intended use of over-the-air TV, because they expect each viewer to have their own antenna. Aereo promptly installed millions of tiny antennas on their server.

Blueseed.co is considering a novel way to avoid the mess of paperwork associated with immigrating to the U.S. They plan to park a cruise ship off the coast of San Francisco and helicopter international executives between their Silicon Valley jobs and international waters every day getting them to and from work. (We're planning to cover off the grid ideas like these in a future issue, so feel free to send us any cool pointers.)

It's definitely not clear that any of these are good ideas. What is clear is that they are truly out of the box answers to difficult problems. Pulling them off requires a great deal of expertise in one area as well as a breadth of knowledge. Fundamentally, providing that kind of breadth is what magazines like XRDS strive to achieve. Each issue brings you a number of articles from a field that is probably not your own, which we recruit and curate in an effort to deliver high-quality content that will spawn ideas by keeping you well informed. And when you're done with this issue of XRDS, go read some philosophy :)

—Peter Kinnaird and Inbal Talgam-Cohen

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1. For those interested in startups and business, this is likely similar to the notion of Latticework upheld by Warren Buffett's partner Charles Munger.

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