Artificial Intelligence, Art and Collaboration: Interview with Dr. Kenneth Stanley, UCF

As Computer Science teachers, we can all testify that we have spent hours developing our “hard skills” and using them in the classroom and beyond. Chances are a STEM professional will have been nurtured on computational thinking, mathematics, science and the like, often neglecting the importance of communication, social grace, friendliness and other EQ-related traits. Lately however there’s been a lot of talk about the importance of “soft skills” in the new workplace and “collaboration” is the new keyword in STEM circles. The title of this New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller “Why What You Learn in Preschool Is Crucial at Work” may seem perplexing at first glance; however the reader will soon realize that the fundamental social skills we learn in our early years are equally as important in landing a fulfilling job as our technical expertise. Says Miller: It’s the jobs that combine technical and interpersonal skills that are booming, like being a computer scientist working on a group project.”

A short while after reading the NY Times article, I stumbled upon an interesting video that reverberated the same concept: the talk is titled “Why Greatness Cannot be Planned” and was delivered by Kenneth Stanley last month in the context of the “Collaboration and the Workplace of the Future” summit in Washington DC. Stanley is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Central Florida and one of the creators of Picbreeder, an online collaborative art application that allows pictures to be “bred” almost like animals. I asked Dr. Stanley if he would be willing to be interviewed by e-mail for the CSTA International Community… here’s what he had to say:

Dr. Stanley, I am the International Representative of CSTA, an Association of Computer Science Teachers from all over the world. We’re a diverse community, and we’re looking for ways to build bridges of communication. Is diversity an asset or an obstacle when it comes to collaboration?

Thank you Mina for the opportunity to address the CSTA. I think most professionals would agree that diversity is an asset and I certainly count among them, but the interesting issue is why diversity is so important in particular in creative endeavors. What we’ve found in our research is that a critical component of a successful creative system is its ability to cultivate diverse stepping stones. By stepping stones I mean ideas that lead to other ideas. Creativity in a collaborative group tends to break down or converge prematurely when for example only the stepping stones approved by the leaders or through consensus are brought up for consideration. That premature convergence happens because there are not enough jumping off points to allow the group genuinely to explore the space of possibilities. Unfortunately, as a culture we often strait jacket innovation through just such consensus-driven processes, leading to less creative exploration.

In any case, an important corollary to the insight that diverse stepping stones foster innovation is that of course diverse people are the most likely to generate diverse stepping stones. And that’s a good thing, because the divergence of ideas in a diverse group means that the possible avenues for exploration multiply and expand. So while you may decide individually to pursue a line of inquiry that I never would, in the end your pursuit is good for both of us because your idea could be the stepping stone to my next major discovery. In that way, it’s a good thing that you and I are different because it allows us to lay stepping stones that neither of us would have respectively encountered without such diversity.

(By the way, the research I cited is disclosed in our new book by the same name as the talk you mentioned, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective, which is available online at http://www.amazon.com/Why-Greatness-Cannot-Planned-Objective/dp/3319155237 or http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319155234.)

I had never heard of Picbreeder before, and I was really excited to see an application that applies Artificial Intelligence algorithms to such a universal theme as art. Have you witnessed collaboration patterns developing among users of the site? 

We have indeed gained some deep and interesting insights about collaboration from seeing how users behave on Picbreeder. One of the most interesting is that it is important to protect individuals in a collaborative setting so that they can follow their own radical intuitions for a significant time without interference from the group. That is, the most successful collaborations on Picbreeder result from chains of users who individually pursue their own directions eventually to hand off whatever they discover to the next user in the chain. In other words, even in a collaborative setting, periods of individual autonomy play a critical role.

Another insight from Picbreeder is that people almost always benefit from the discoveries of other people quite different from themselves (which ties back to the diversity issue).   For example, someone on Picbreeder bred an image that looks like an alien face, which I personally later bred into a car. Interestingly, I would never have bred the alien face myself, but somehow the car I did breed only became possible because someone else bred the alien face. So in aggregate collaboration is feeding effectively off the collective sharing of stepping stones among many diverse users.

I believe you will be happy to learn that CSTA has a chapter in Florida… and I’m sure you know UCF hosts an annual High School Programming Tournament. What lessons can we learn from the collaboration between K-12 and higher education institutes for the future generation of computer scientists and tech professionals? 

It’s nice to hear of CSTA’s Florida chapter. This is a big question with many possible answers. I think effective teaching at the K-12 level often involves inspiring passion for a subject in the students. That is, it’s a lot easier to learn when you care about the subject matter.   In that spirit, the cutting edge research that happens in higher education can serve as an inspiration for younger students that demonstrates to them just how exciting a particular subject can become down the line. Picbreeder, which packages some pretty advanced technology into an intuitive and entertaining visual form, is an example of how it’s possible to present the cutting edge in a way beginners can appreciate.

On the other hand, the unbounded curiosity and yet-to-be-indoctrinated thinking of K-12 students can also push those in higher grades in new directions. I have the pleasure right now of hosting a 12th-grade participant in one of my lab’s projects. His questions are sometimes so surprising and unanticipated that they pull us back to confronting basic assumptions that we long forgot we had. In that sense, I think the undergraduate and Ph.D. students in my lab are learning perhaps as much from him as he is from them. K-12 students remind those of us long lost in the esoteric details of advanced fields why we were originally inspired to engage those fields in the first place.

Many thanks to Dr. Stanley for the inspiring interview… interestingly enough, even though the original purpose of this post was to reach out to our International Community, I believe his insightful comments touch base with anyone seeking ways to blend a tech-oriented background with the social skills so crucial for collaborating in diverse settings. It’s food for thought.

(which brings us to the next item on my international “agenda”: food! This video portrays a graduate from India who decided to pursue a computer science master’s degree in the USA… apart from the cutting-edge technology, he chose the country for its food! Like art, a topic as universal as food can only spur new opportunities for collaboration; we’ll explore them in my next post for the CSTA international committee).

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