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See Inside December 2011

How Ideas Emerge from Society




Illustration by Nick Higgins

Where do great ideas come from—and how do we recognize their significance when they appear?

Danny Hillis, Applied Minds co-founder and a Scientific American adviser, and I were discussing these questions recently as we prepared for a talk in late October at the Compass Summit (compass-summit.com). “Ideas are a product of society,” an emergent phenomenon, Hillis told me, “which are almost inevitable.” That’s why, he said, our admiration for individuals who have come up with such ideas is “almost giving too much credit.” The idea itself is not enough. A lot of people in a society will have a given notion, he explained. Maybe only 1,000 will try to sketch it out. “Then 100 will try to make something, and 10 of those might actually make something practical. One or two of those might be on the level of an Edison or Tesla.”

In many ways, Hillis and I share a mission of identifying those ideas that just might work. His company, of course, is involved in developing them. As for the magazine and our Web site’s role? “The interesting thing about Scientific American is it lets you understand those ideas,” he added.

We have both watched with interest recent sweeping trends in the idea machine: how interdisciplinary research is a growing area of focus and the rising force of “big data” and increasing computing power. Those topics would be part of our on-stage Compass Summit conversation, and they also underpin this issue’s special look at innovation, the third annual “World Changing Ideas.” The section features 10 out-of-the-lab concepts with the possibility to scale in a practical way.

I’m particularly taken by “The Machine That Would Predict the Future,” by David Weinberger.. The story covers the work of Dirk Helbing, a physicist and chair of sociology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. Helbing has proposed a large-scale computing program that would attempt to model global-scale systems and so “would effectively serve as the world’s crystal ball.”

Perhaps you, like me, will feel forcefully reminded of Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon, the “psychohistorian” whose pattern-predicting math drove the famous Foundation science-fiction series. Asimov, a long-time Scientific American subscriber himself, read the magazine to keep up with science. Increasingly, it feels as if the reverse is also true.

This article was originally published with the title "Emergent Genius."

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