Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Not all ideas that glitter are gold

A common misjudgment

Many of the ideas that are considered brilliant (in particular by lesser minds) are often far from being so. The famous statement by Newton about standing on the shoulder of giants explains many of them (and is in it self a good example of the same principle, cf. standing on the shoulders of giantsw).

Very many inventions are just someone putting together already present pieces of the puzzle (e.g. the telephone, with several near simultaneous “inventions”), or making a critical improvement of something already existing (Gutenberg did not invent printing, but movable type—and even that is sometimes disputed—; Edison did not invent the light-bulb, but improved its design; and so on). In contrast, some strokes of genius are not recognized, because they “only” delivered a component to a later whole; or because they came too early, before they could be properly utilized. (Today, “because they had too poor marketing”, and similar reasons, may apply.)


Side-note:

This is neither to deny that a final combination of existing puzzle-pieces often requires an unusual level of intelligence, depth of knowledge, or similar; nor to denigrate the inventive efforts involved. In fact, in some cases, even an act of combination can require true genius.

Instead, it points out the difference between acts of true creation and acts of combination and refinement—a difference that exists in a wide variety of contexts, including software development, theatre, sculpting, and surgery. The road to the first heart transplant was very long, and included tremendous work in a variety of sub-fields (anatomy, immunology, anesthesia, implement making, ...) with some of the first steps going back hundreds, possibly even thousands, of years. Eventually, Barnhard, according to some, used someone else’s final combinations to steal the glory.


Similarly, one of the great buzz-words in software development in the years after 2005 has been Ajaxw—something I have heard managers, marketing people, and naive developers refer to as something conceptually revolutionary. Yet, I had very similar ideas in 1999 based on just a few months of experience with web development—God knows how many hundreds of others have had similar ideas even earlier. Back then, the supporting technologies were not there, were not browser independent, or simply did not work; ten years later the situation is very different and Ajax is readily available to anyone who wants to use it.

“Jurassic Park” is another case in point: Working the idea of cloning dinosaurs into a best-selling book or a block-buster movie is an accomplishment; just having the idea, nothing special: I knew of cloning from a Superman comic I read as a child, knew about mammoth-flesh being retrieved from ice blocks as pre-teen—and my first thought when I heard of real-life cloning (after which I knew that cloning was not just science fiction) in a popular-science journal was “Cool! We can get the mammoths back!”. (As it turns out, this is not necessarily true, because the DNA of the remnants is usually highly damaged.) The step to dinosaurs (using some unscientific excuse to justify access to DNA) for a commercial author is not hard. I daresay that a majority of all paleontologist and clone-researchers, and very many teenage boys, had played with the thought (or some variation of the same principle) at the time the book was released.

Rule of thumb: If someone has an idea that he considers brilliant and original, chances are that hundreds, thousands, possibly even millions, of others have had the same idea—or would have had it, if exposed to the same circumstances.

Odd consequences

Ironically, the lack of this insight in some people has actually increased their success (and conversely decreased success for people with it): It is quite common for an uninformed manager or a sub-standard engineer to preach the virtues of one of his unremarkable ideas—and being supported by sufficiently many others that he is being credited as being “a visionary” or “creative”. The people who have many good ideas, OTOH, often tend not to make a big deal out of them—after all, he has dozens, possibly hundreds, of similar ideas and expects everyone else to do so too.

To take an example from my own past: At E2, we had an “idea base” where anyone with a good idea relating to E2 could enter it. One of the core businesses were the development of platforms for online auctions. An auction has some common variations that are reasonably well-know (cf. e.g. Auctionw)—and which our business development must have known about (or they would have needed a severe firing). Yet, one or several idiots made a number of idea entries along the lines of “Hey, we could implement a reverse auction!” or “... silent auction!”—and other similarly trivial entries relating to other parts of the business. I had more or less made up my mind to write a round-email along the lines of “Please, do not fill the idea base with such trivial ideas. These ideas are something most of us could duplicate several times over with a search engine and a bit of brain-storming. Leave that leg-work to business development!”, but was pre-empted by an email from upper management: “Thank you, for all your valuable ideas relating to new exciting auction types!”.

Patents

This is also exemplified by the many entirely trivial, and thus inallowable, patents being granted every year. Cf. e.g. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/trivial-patent.htmle and http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/amazon.htmle by Richard Stallman—the second article dealing with Amazon’s infamous “one-click” patent. I would strongly suggest some combination of very strict criteria and very high fees (possibly with an escalation depending on the number of patents held) to prevent this phenomenon.

Or to quote from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, where Noble-Prize winner Richard P. Feynman makes fun of patents, by retelling a past scene:

Smith [...], "We in the patent office would like to patent every idea you have for the United States government, for which you are working now. Any idea you have on nuclear energy or its application that you may think everybody knows about, everybody doesn’t know about: Just come to my office and tell me the idea."

[..,]

I say to him, "That note you sent around: That’s kind of crazy to have us come in and tell you every idea." [...] "There are so many ideas about nuclear energy that are so perfectly obvious, that I’d be here all day telling you stuff."

"LIKE WHAT?"

[...] I say. "Example: nuclear reactor... under water... water goes in... steam goes out the other side... Pshshshsht – it’s a submarine. [Repeat for airplane and rocket, with the same principle] Or: nuclear reactor... only instead of using ordinary uranium, you use enriched uranium [trivial variation on existing procedures], with beryllium oxide at high temperature to make it more efficient... It’s an electrical power plant. There’s a million ideas!" [...]

About three months later, [...] "Feynman, the submarine has already been taken. But the other three are yours."

(http://www.gorgorat.com/e)


Side-note:

The copyright situation of the above link is not clear from the site it self. I have requested clarification from the publisher. Since they have failed to object, and seeing that the site (at the time of writing) is still online, I assume a legitimate use.


Depending on what was known at the time of writing, there may have been nothing patent-worthy at all here—or there may have been one semi-generic patent that could be justified. What it boils down to: Nuclear reactions generate heat, heat can be used to turn water into steam (with variations), steam can be used for jet propulsion. Consider, by analogy, requesting individual patents for using a gasoline motor to propel cars, trucks, trains, motorcycles, boats, ...—the motor and/or the generic propulsion may be patent-worthy; the trivial variation of putting the motor into yet another vehicle is not. Similarly, inventing a new type of motor does only warrant one patent—that for the motor (or some central principle involved): It does not warrant patents for “using my new motor in a car”, “using my new motor in a truck”, etc.

Explanations

Why then does this phenomenon arise? The central reason is likely that most people are far from bright, and when they do have a good idea (or see someone else having a very good idea) they fail to realize that many others could have come up with the same idea with little effort. If a lesser mind has a “brilliant” idea, the reaction of the greater mind will often be “Obviously. So what?”—just like most adults would react upon hearing about the newest insight of an eight-year old. Unfortunately, patent offices, middle-management, you-name-it, tend to be filled with more-or-less average minds.


Side-note:

Obviously, even the insights of someone of vastly over-average intelligence and knowledge may seem trivial to someone yet another notch higher on the genius scale. A critical difference is that the proportion of superior minds diminishes drastically at the higher ends of the scale: The ideas of an average man in a crowded street may be trivial to a dozen persons within fifty yards; the ideas of a college professor in the same spot may find one person within that distance, and need two hundred yards to reach a dozen; Einstein may have needed two hundred yards at a physicists’ convention.

Correspondingly, ideas at higher levels become an increasingly rarer good from a collective point of view—even though there may still be odd individuals who considers them trivial.


Another important reason is marketing: By marketing the trivial as valuable, creative, or otherwise worth-while, sufficiently many can be fooled to earn money even on ideas that are truly nothing special—possibly even poor. Consider, similarly, the great successes of many inferior Microsoft products.

Looking specifically at patents, deliberate obfuscation is as reason (cf. the above link): By taking a trivial idea and writing it up in a complicated manner, patent offices are fooled. (Certainly, in addition, many patent-office employees prefer to get rid of work the easy way—by not making a fuzz.) Combine this with the wish many corporations have of building great portfolios of patents to block others from using trivial improvements, block direct competitors from developing similar products (in particular, in combination with reverse engineering), to have a “nuclear” threat to use to avoid being attacked over patents themselves, etc.

Obvious—in hindsight?

Could it not be that many ideas just seem trivial in hindsight? Certainly, in some cases; however, typically, this applies in that a larger group considers the idea trivial than before—it does not change the fact that a smaller, but still large, group would have considered it trivial even without hindsight. In particular: Only very rarely can a trivial patent be justified by the claim that it would be trivial just with hindsight, but not at the time of solution.

Further, the reverse phenomenon is also very common: Many are exposed to the problem at the same time as the solution. They have not had the time to familiarize themselves with the problem, look for a solutions, etc.—and, very often, it does not take much to get sufficiently deep beneath the skin of a problem to come up with solutions that appear brilliant at first look. By this simultaneous exposure, they consider a solution to be brilliant, which they instead would have considered obvious, had they been exposed to the problem first.

More generally, it is often the case that once the correct problem has been identified, the solution is obvious, and the patent-holder is often someone who just stumbled upon the a particular problem before anyone else did. To understand the importance of this point, look by analogy, on the world record development in the women’s pole vaulte, and consider how “early adapters” of varying levels were able to get their name down with results ranging from the laughable to the semi-decent. (The pole vault became a “recognized” event in the early nineties.) The same phenomenon is very present in the intellectual world.


Side-note:

The above listing does not cover the last few years. See e.g. http://www.athletix.org/Statistics/wrPVwomen.htmle for a more up-to-date (but less historically complete) listing.