The "Outside the Box" Box

by Eliezer Yudkowsky2 min read12th Oct 200730 comments


Cached ThoughtsMachine LearningSocial & Cultural Dynamics

Whenever someone exhorts you to "think outside the box", they usually, for your convenience, point out exactly where "outside the box" is located.  Isn't it funny how nonconformists all dress the same...

In Artificial Intelligence, everyone outside the field has a cached result for brilliant new revolutionary AI idea—neural networks, which work just like the human brain!  New AI Idea: complete the pattern:  "Logical AIs, despite all the big promises, have failed to provide real intelligence for decades—what we need are neural networks!"

This cached thought has been around for three decades.  Still no general intelligence.  But, somehow, everyone outside the field knows that neural networks are the Dominant-Paradigm-Overthrowing New Idea, ever since backpropagation was invented in the 1970s.  Talk about your aging hippies.

Nonconformist images, by their nature, permit no departure from the norm.  If you don't wear black, how will people know you're a tortured artist?  How will people recognize uniqueness if you don't fit the standard pattern for what uniqueness is supposed to look like?  How will anyone recognize you've got a revolutionary AI concept, if it's not about neural networks?

Another example of the same trope is "subversive" literature, all of which sounds the same, backed up by a tiny defiant league of rebels who control the entire English Department.  As Anonymous asks on Scott Aaronson's blog:

"Has any of the subversive literature you've read caused you to modify any of your political views?"

Or as Lizard observes:

"Revolution has already been televised. Revolution has been *merchandised*. Revolution is a commodity, a packaged lifestyle, available at your local mall. $19.95 gets you the black mask, the spray can, the "Crush the Fascists" protest sign, and access to your blog where you can write about the police brutality you suffered when you chained yourself to a fire hydrant.  Capitalism has learned how to sell anti-capitalism."

Many in Silicon Valley have observed that the vast majority of venture capitalists at any given time are all chasing the same Revolutionary Innovation, and it's the Revolutionary Innovation that IPO'd six months ago.  This is an especially crushing observation in venture capital, because there's a direct economic motive to not follow the herd—either someone else is also developing the product, or someone else is bidding too much for the startup.  Steve Jurvetson once told me that at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, only two partners need to agree in order to fund any startup up to $1.5 million.  And if all the partners agree that something sounds like a good idea, they won't do it.  If only grant committees were this sane.

The problem with originality is that you actually have to think in order to attain it, instead of letting your brain complete the pattern.  There is no conveniently labeled "Outside the Box" to which you can immediately run off.  There's an almost Zen-like quality to it—like the way you can't teach satori in words because satori is the experience of words failing you.  The more you try to follow the Zen Master's instructions in words, the further you are from attaining an empty mind.

There is a reason, I think, why people do not attain novelty by striving for it.  Properties like truth or good design are independent of novelty:  2 + 2 = 4, yes, really, even though this is what everyone else thinks too.  People who strive to discover truth or to invent good designs, may in the course of time attain creativity.  Not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is a change.

Every improvement is a change, but not every change is an improvement.  The one who says, "I want to build an original mousetrap!", and not, "I want to build an optimal mousetrap!", nearly always wishes to be perceived as original.  "Originality" in this sense is inherently social, because it can only be determined by comparison to other people.  So their brain simply completes the standard pattern for what is perceived as "original", and their friends nod in agreement and say it is subversive.

Business books always tell you, for your convenience, where your cheese has been moved to.  Otherwise the readers would be left around saying, "Where is this 'Outside the Box' I'm supposed to go?"

Actually thinking, like satori, is a wordless act of mind.

The eminent philosophers of Monty Python said it best of all.