- Why Greatness Cannot be Planned: The Myth of the Objective by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman
by Kenneth O. Stanley and Joel Lehman. Springer, Heidelberg, Germany, 2015. 141 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN: 3319155237; 978-3319-15523-4.
If you ever wondered what creativity is, this book will ease your curiosity about it. Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned argues that in order to fulfill ambitious goals, we must give up aiming for specific objectives. Instead, we should open ourselves up to an unexpected, more fascinating and progressive undirected exploration of new possibilities. Stanley and Lehman, researchers in artificial intelligence, argue that because innovation involves complex stepping-stones that cannot always be anticipated, we should focus on exploring new possibilities—regardless of how these perform according to preconceived standards (objectives). This ensures new creations, some of which will be highly valuable. The view advocated in the book is so obvious and inconspicuous that it passes unnoticed, but realizing it is enlightening. In the words of the authors: “All of us can transform the present into the future. None can transform the future into the present.”
It is a provoking read, focused on a rationale that at first sounds simplistic and even counterintuitive but is well known to artists. That is, how the free exploration of themes eventually hits the creative jackpot. The authors first focus on a couple of computational models of their own which explore the “novelty search strategy.” One of these models, picbreeder , is a game in which one or several images are picked and somehow combined to produce an offspring population of new images. The process can be iterated ad infinitum. The authors explain why it is impossible in this game to breed a specific preconceived image. In other words, you cannot decide beforehand whether you want to breed an image of, say, an elephant. Instead, images are bred without aiming for any particular design, and consequently, truly enthralling pics will be discovered, such as alien faces, skull cars, etc. I tried picbreeder aiming to evolve a flower (a rather simple albeit pre-set objective). I avoided novelty, i.e. getting distracted by any other images that would catch my attention. Yet after more than two hundred clicks, I quit because, having been unable to reach my objective, I got bored. This toy model certainly illustrates the central point of the book.
This novelty search strategy is explained by invoking a metaphor: a treasure hunter who does not seek for something in particular (he cannot know what treasures he will find). His virtue lies in skillfully collecting various valuables (stepping-stones) by searching in different places. They give the example that making a TV could not have been a realistic objective for cavemen, since the steppingstones to TVs are not TV-like objects. Instead, first electricity had to be discovered, cathode tubes invented and so on. Similarly, I could not possibly have “picbred” a flower, because the stepping-stones from the initial pics were not flower-like.
After treatment of the toy models, several chapters discuss why focusing on objectives can be deceiving (as with me “picbreeding” a flower) or even disastrous. There are strong and direct critiques on controversial issues such as education, the functionality of the scientific community and others. These critiques are valid and necessary. They explain how focusing on indicators (strictly speaking, objectives) can lead to misguided results. This happens when, instead of trying to improve the systems themselves, policies target improvement of indicators. The outcome is often manifested in strategies that increase these indicators but allow the problems to become worse. An extreme example that they propose is to breed “intelligent bacteria” by applying an IQ test to the microorganisms. However ludicrous it may sounds the problem bespeaks a deep truth, as the stepping-stones to intelligence are not intelligence-like and cannot be assessed through objectives such as increasing IQ. Intelligence could arise only through non-directed exploration, implemented by biological evolution.
Along these lines, a complete [End Page 99] chapter is dedicated to discussing why education fails and how schools and colleges could be...