The Non-Expert Inventor

As a Computer Scientist, I catch myself sometime, when looking at a wonderful innovative system at work, thinking of the details that went into it. When face-to-face with the wonderful Starship zipping around the Purdue campus delivering food, I am thinking of what software security feature does it have to avoid it being hijacked. When sitting in the huge Airbus plane as it thunders along the runway and then majestically takes off, I am thinking of how many lines of software just got executed and did it all go through a formal proof. So I try to consciously draw back, slow down the neuronal impulse signals, and think of the wonderful big picture achievement of what I just observed. That underlines the beauty of science and technology and the myriad people from different backgrounds who must have come together to realize the vision.

In those moments when I can successfully draw back, I think of how non-experts have imagined and then invented things that have changed our world in ways big and small. Perhaps they did not know enough for their minds to be cluttered with the minutiae and therefore they could imagine the grand leaps. And a small number of these imagined grand leaps have gone on to become reality. I also think of whether those days of non-expert inventors are still around us, or have we become too specialized, too deep in our respective fields to do that. But let’s look back first and then we will come back to this question about our modern technological world.

The Race between an Amateur and a Professional

Think back to the mid-19th century. The telegraph had been introduced and had gone on to become a phenomenal success. Tens of thousands of miles of telegraph wire had been strung across the country. Western Union had become the dominant telegraph company in the United States and in 1861 completed the first transcontinental telegraph line, connecting San Francisco to the East Coast. You would not suspect this company of such glory days as you see it today for only money transfers and of the kind that seems just a tad shady to you. Anyway, the bottleneck was that each telegraph wire was limited to carrying one message at a time. So if you wanted to send more messages down the line, you had to install more wires to do it. This meant a rat’s nest of wires and that meant the setup was expensive and cumbersome.

This need spurred two very different people who went on to develop independently the idea of carrying speech over wires through sending electrical signals, namely, the telephone. One had been running his own company producing telegraphic equipment, had been patenting his inventions, and had shown enough promise that Western Union bought a one-third interest in his business. The other was a teacher in his father’s school for the deaf and was focused intently on a topic far removed from telegraphic wires and electricity — teaching the hearing impaired how to speak correctly. But he was a born tinkerer and he started tinkering with models of the human voice. The first character in the story is Elisha Gray and the second Alexander Graham Bell.

Of course there are other factors at play here too. An important lesson I found in this race to invention and subsequent fame and fortune was that Gray seemed to have lost the appetite for his invention after he had made the technical significant breakthrough. He bought into the business wisdom that transmitting speech was only of entertainment value, while what serious business needed was sending messages through dots and dashes. Bell on the other hand got wholly behind the idea of the speech transmission and with great gusto and with his trusted and mechanically brilliant young assistant Thomas Watson set about transmitting musical notes over their “harmonic telegraph”. Didn’t someone tell me of the fast hare versus the slow rabbit before? I hear in this story as in many other less noted ones, notes of the brilliant dabbler versus the focused seeker. The focused seeker almost always triumphs.

The Party Wire. Norman Rockwell, 1919. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Case for the Amateur Researcher Today

In academic research, especially in the computing field, often the significant breakthrough comes from an effort that a graduate student leads the charge on. I hasten to add that, of course, we as advisors are guiding the path of the graduate student. I say this in haste lest I be damned for heresy by my academic colleagues. But that spark often comes from the graduate student — read the parable of the “Lion’s Watch Repair Business” if you do not believe me. And yet the student is often only a few years into the field. A topic that the student had no clue about a mere two-five years back, she is having that spark of insight today. The intense immersion into the research culture and the seeking of the depths of knowledge in a specific topic combine to make these discoveries happen. I believe this is one of those hard-to-quantify unique advantages of our university system in the US. What is the graduate student if not an amateur at the job … and it is such amateurs who are at the forefront of our discoveries. So despite what we may feel about the outsized influence of the specialized professional today, still the amateur researcher is blazing her trail through the technical discoveries.

Now let us turn to the faculty member, who is often the choir master of the research group leading onto the discoveries. At times she is relatively new to an area when she makes the big breakthrough. For example, speaking for myself and speaking grandiosely, my work on Voice-over-IP (VoIP) security came about a year or two after I first started reading about VoIP. This was shortly after I had several long, meandering conversations with some industrial colleagues who were in the VoIP business. This work of ours went on to have quite some academic and industrial impact — one of those few and far between and therefore cherished cases where your patent ends up in a product. Time and again in cases of big leaps in the field, I observe what happens is the group effect done right. A group of individuals with different expertise areas come together, sometime through conscious orchestration of an organizational leader[1] but also often enough through chance. These individuals add in their ideas into a cauldron and after addition of suitable amounts of structured guidance and a lot of vigorous stirring comes out the discovery. And each person in the team may well feel like an amateur in all but her own small piece in the overall discovery.

An illuminating instance of this group effect was the discovery of the transistor in the late 1940s at Bell Labs. I knew the outlines of the story, but just read the fascinating details in the wonderfully written book by Walter Isaacson called “The Innovators”. The transistor came out of a department (“the vacuum tube department”) that was headed by a metallurgist turned physician (Mervin Kelly) and then headed by a solid-state physicist turned megalomaniac (William Shockley) with the two key players being, a quantum theorist (John Bardeen) and a deft experimentalist (Walter Brattain). Bell Labs had the vision, and the practically unlimited coffers, to hire brilliant people from various disciplines and put them under the same roof, in close physical proximity to make wonderful serendipities like the transistor happen.

Credit: Brian McLachlan, New Yorker Cartoons, May 16, 2016.

In Conclusion

The barrier to becoming an expert is high. If we all waited to become an expert before having opinions on a topic, then there would hardly be any talk shows on television. If we all waited to become an expert before attempting technical breakthroughs, then our field of computing will lose its agility and proceed at a pace similar to our more mature scientific disciplines. And that would be bad, really bad. So I will go about my merry way encouraging my novice students to think of iconoclastic thoughts and for sure I will keep thinking of how to make that breakthrough which, if I heard the real experts, is plain impossible.


[1] Like Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor leading the "traitorous eight" toward the invention of the microchip (late 1950s) or Robert Kahn at ARPA leading academics and industrial researchers to break down the silos of incompatible networks and develop the network of networks (1970s).

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