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Dr. Tony McCaffrey Talks To Durtti About What Ants Can Teach Humans About Brainstorming

Cognitive Psychologist, Dr. Tony McCaffrey believes that prioritising the teaching of techniques to enhance our creativity will be fundamental to the successful implementation of AI in society, now, and in the future. Durtti wants Tony to explain why he believes that ants could provide the perfect solution.

As a Cognitive Psychologist, Tony, you “devise counter techniques to mental obstacles to innovation” (your own words). Do you believe that humans are better at overcoming mental obstacles than perhaps they were 10 years ago, or do you feel that despite extraordinary advances in technology in the past decade, we still have much to learn about how to tackle every day challenges?

The data show that we are getting significantly less creative. It is either partially because of major advances in technology or, perhaps, in spite of it. We do not really know yet.

A landmark study by Professor Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary analyzed creativity data between 1966 and 2008 from the classic tests called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

Professor Kim had access to test scores from 272,599 kindergarteners through twelfth graders. The results: starting in 1990, even as IQ scores continued to rise, creativity scores significantly decreased. The scores of kindergarteners through third graders decreased the most.

In my opinion, we are in greater need today of teaching creativity-enhancing techniques than ever before. My Obscure Features Hypothesis (OFH) for innovation has led to highly effective methods to counteract the major obstacles to human creativity: functional fixedness, design fixation, analogy blindness, assumption blindness, goal fixedness, and whole solution bias. The OFH states that any creative solution is based upon at least one new or commonly overlooked (i.e., obscure) feature of the problem at hand. From the OFH flows a systematic set of methods that help people notice significantly more features than they can on their own.

Many of these counter techniques are algorithmic, so interacting with computers running these techniques can help humans become more creative.

Ironically, technology advances might be one cause of our lowered creativity, but computers running these creativity-enhancing techniques may actually help us raise our creativity back up to what it was.

Tell us what BrainSwarming is and why ‘brainstorming’ in your opinion is not an efficient group method to finding solutions.

BrainSwarming is a silent, visual group problem solving method.

It can be done remotely online or in person with a wall and sticky notes. It uses a specially-made bi-directional graph, in which the goal is placed at the top of the graph and is refined downward while the resources are placed across the bottom and their features grow upward. When the two directions connect, you have your first possible solution path. In other words, you have your first way of interacting your resources together to achieve your goal.

BrainSwarming is inspired by the way ants signal each other as to where food has been found. When an ant finds food, it leaves a trail of pheromones as it makes its way back to the nest. In this way, ants leave traces in their environment that their fellow ants can act upon.

In BrainSwarming, humans silently leave traces of ideas on the graph that their fellow problem solvers can build upon.

In contrast, brainstorming was touted back in the 1950s to produce more ideas and better quality ideas than simply having everyone generate ideas individually for 30 minutes and then come together to share and build upon each other’s ideas.

Every test of brainstorming, however, has shown that it does not produce more ideas and better quality ideas than the other method described above.

In sum, brainstorming never lived up to its hype!

The main problem is ‘talking’.

Sharing ideas by talking requires sharing one idea at a time, which is very inefficient.

BrainSwarming, because it is silent, allows many ideas to be shared at a time by having everyone simultaneously place their ideas in the proper place in the graph. Then, everyone concurrently reads the ideas of others and builds upon them.

Second, because of the silence, there is no need for a facilitator to prevent the talkative members from dominating the introverts. Consequently, a BrainSwarming facilitator is free to do other important work like help keep the graph organized and apply innovation techniques to reveal hidden features of the problem.

Third, there is no need for a recorder to write down all the ideas. Everyone is creating a structured graph together that is visible to everyone else.

In sum, there is really no comparison between BrainSwarming and brainstorming when it comes to solving important problems.

BrainSwarming beats brainstorming in important metrics (e.g., number of ideas generated) as well as in the overall pleasantness of the BrainSwarming experience for its participants.

Two Harvard Business Review videos, one here and one below, show BrainSwarming in action:

You are also a Mathematics Teacher. What do you learn most from teaching students?

Everyone has their own style of learning and it takes a great deal of creativity to craft new, diverse ways to present material so every student’s strengths are reached and leveraged toward learning.

For example, I developed ways to use emojis and mobiles as a visual way to teach algebra. This project taught me that many people can benefit from intuitive and powerful visualization methods.

BrainSwarming is an intuitive and powerful visualization method for problem solving. So, the same creative process and overall goal that I use to help my students also helps my customers.

As CTO of a company called Innovation Accelerator, you have also worked very closely on the development of a search engine called www.CMoreNow.com which helps users to consider previously overlooked aspects to problems, leading to innovative potential solutions. Using an example, can you describe how www.cmorenow.com might present a more effective set of solutions to the user than another search engine?

Suppose you want to create a novel solution to reduce concussions in American football players. If you type ‘reduce concussions in football players’ into Google, it will tell you what has already been tried and been written about. If you type ‘reduce concussions’ into CMoreNow.com, it will find things that have not been tried but are still plausible.

How does it do this?

Well, CMoreNow.com first explodes the goal into dozens of ways of rewording it, including the following: lessen trauma, minimize impact, reduce energy, absorb energy, minimize force, exchange forces, substitute energy, oppose energy, repel energy, lessen momentum, and alter direction.

Second, my company team and I examined the under-explored options from this list of alternative ways to phrase the goal.

CMoreNow.com then helped us find the many different patented ideas that could accomplish these overlooked ways of dealing with concussions.

The first alternative phrase to produce a breakthrough was repel energy. The verb ‘repel’ is closely associated with magnets and CMoreNow.com brought up multiple magnetic solutions.

The best one we found was to make each helmet magnetic (there are various ways to do this) with the same pole facing outward so the helmets repel each other when in close proximity.

Based on initial tests, helmets approaching each other will slow in velocity and slightly alter their direction to avoid each other. This produces a glancing blow rather than a direct collision.

Two physicists have verified the plausibility of this approach for significantly reducing the force during helmet collisions.

During the patenting process, we discovered that someone had submitted this idea just weeks before we did.

We tip our hat to this person and plan to interview him about his process of discovering it.

In any case, with no expertise in this area we used CMoreNow.com to easily uncover overlooked solution pathways to the problem and create a highly-promising solution.

The Artificial Intelligence Group

What impact do you think AI is realistically going to have on our every day lives in the next 3-5 years?

I believe there will be two significant steps in the next 3-5 years.

First, the computer will take over many mundane tasks from workers.

Second, the computer will partner with humans using a new interface that will result in reaching levels of innovativeness that neither partner can achieve on their own.

I agree with Dennis R. Mortensen, CEO of x.ai, who says that human employees will have AI agents that help them do the more mundane aspects of their jobs so the humans can actually do the jobs that they were hired to do. You can learn about these AI agents here.

I envision computers and humans working side-by-side to solve important problems.

Most AI researchers today try to get the computer to solve the whole problem. But I have just mathematically proven that there is a limit to a computer’s creative problem solving abilities. You can read the results here in the Harvard Business Review.

Thus, humans and computers will need to work together to be highly innovative. To do so, they need the proper interface to communicate the problem solving steps that each have taken.

I have designed such a human- and computer-friendly interface so that both humans and computers can build upon each other’s strengths and counter each other’s weaknesses. The BrainSwarming graphs described above in question 2 are not just for humans to work together. Imagine AI programs also contributing to these graphs and you have an intuitive interface for human-computer collaboration.

As computers get more creative, they can do more of the work. When computers reach their proven limit to creativity, then humans can step in to pick up the slack.

Unfortunately, most AI proponents overhype what their tools will be able to do, which eventually leads to an inability to live up to the hype and eventually triggers funders to stop funding AI projects. This lack of funding is called AI Winter and has happened several times in the past. In this sense, AI proponents can be their own worst enemy.

I left AI right before one of these AI Winters because I felt there was a deep limitation to what AI could do in the area of creativity and innovation—although I had no proof at the time.

I then went to the human side of creativity by finishing my doctorate in cognitive psychology and focused on creating counter-techniques to overcome the six major blind spots to human creativity (which are listed in my answer to question 1). The counter measures ended up being quite algorithmic and so they were implemented in software.

After I finished my proof of a limit to a computer’s creativity, I then crafted the special human-computer interface so that humans and computers can easily work together during creative problem solving.

I believe the next 3-5 years will see the spread of the use of this human-computer interface for innovation, which will result in a human-computer partnership that will attain heights of creativity that neither partner can reach alone.

Can you imagine ever designing and living in a 3D printed house of your own?

My wife Stephanie is laughing at this question!

My fixes around the house, while highly creative, are not aesthetically pleasing to her and embarrass her in front of guests.

On the one hand, the idea of me designing a house is laughable. On the other hand, instead of fixing things, if replacement parts could be 3D printed, that would be ideal.

In short, I would definitely live in a 3D printed house and it would open up a whole new realm for me of what tinkering and fixing things are all about. I could make my fixes more aesthetically pleasing – and thus make my wife happy.

Good days and bad days. We’re human and we all have them! How do you try to deal with obstacles in your life if things aren’t going entirely your way?

During all days but especially bad days, I make sure that I meditate and pray to help me get back in touch once again with the big picture: my overall purpose, mission, and what fine tuning needs to happen to my overall trajectory. Often, it is just a matter of patience for certain circumstances to clear.

At other times, it takes an adjustment in my plans or a new interpretation of my overall purpose.

Finally, Tony, what is the best piece of life advice you have ever been given, and who gave it to you?

Where your passion and interests intersect the world’s needs, there is your vocation.

I learned this idea from the Jesuits, although it originally came from Frederick Buechner.

Spiritually, psychologically, and practically, this has been the best advice given to me. It has helped me never lose my passion and keep my eyes toward the needs of the world.

It always helps me look inward and look outward to find the connecting point between the two.

More at www.innovationaccelerator.com

You can follow Tony here on: Durtti and LinkedIn.

Tony is a member of The Artificial Intelligence Group on LinkedIn.