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The "Outside the Box" Box

29 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 October 2007 10:50PM

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:

 

Part of the Seeing With Fresh Eyes subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Original Seeing"

Previous post: "Cached Thoughts"

Comments (26)

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Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 12 October 2007 10:59:09PM 12 points [-]

Eliezer is right, as usual. But it raises the question: when should you be flattered and when should you be insulted to be called "creative" or "revolutionary"?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 October 2007 11:06:44PM 27 points [-]

One bad algorithm I can think of is to be flattered when you're called such by other people you think are currently "creative" or "revolutionary", as opposed to people who were previously revolutionary and now mainstream. The former is how cliques form.

This as a second thought to my first reaction, which was, "Well, if Robin Hanson calls you "revolutionary" you must practically be insane."

Comment author: TheOtherDave 28 October 2010 06:10:05PM 14 points [-]

Beats being impractically insane, I suppose.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 12 October 2007 11:43:25PM 5 points [-]

Trying to be original may be justifiable if people will buy a NEW!! product even if it's inferior.

I appreciated your choice of examples. Conformist-nonconformism is about the most annoying thing in the world to me, in addition to making a lot of smart people useless (or worse).

Comment author: Aaron3 13 October 2007 12:53:58AM 10 points [-]

Eliezer is certainly correct that our real goal is to make optimal decisions and perform optimal actions, regardless of how different they are from those of the herd. But that doesn't mean we should ignore information about our conformity or non-conformity. It's often important.

Consider the hawk-dove game. If you're in a group of animals who randomly bump into each other and compete for territory, the minority strategy is the optimal strategy. If all your peers are cowards, you can completely dominate them by showing some fang. Or if your peers follow the "never back down, always fight to the death" strategy, you should be a coward until they've killed each other off. Non-conformity is a valid goal (or subgoal, at least).

On the other hand, in situations with networks effects, you want to be a conformist. If you're selling your widget on Bob's Auction Site, which has 20 users, instead of eBay, your originality is simply stupid.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 13 October 2007 01:45:56AM 3 points [-]

Eliezer, your first and second thoughts illustrate my question; they are not clearly positive or negative descriptors. :)

Comment author: MichaelAnissimov 13 October 2007 02:08:57AM 0 points [-]

Confession: I watched the Monty Python clip before reading the whole post.

Comment author: TGGP4 13 October 2007 05:30:51AM 1 point [-]

Much of what Eliezer talked about in the beginning is discussed in The Rebel Sell. I am actually not as disturbed by those of the "radical counterculture" as the authors, who discuss how to accomplish change as opposed to receiving recognition, because they know enough to be dangerous.

Comment author: Katja 13 October 2007 03:53:30PM 9 points [-]

Boxes are always patterns completed by brains, along with ready made outsides of them. Thinking is necessary because to find the outside of a box you have to notice the box is there, which you don't if your brain fills it in automatically. Things are less noticable if you can't concieve of the possibility of an alternative to them.

I probably think this because my brain fills in this pattern. And I only think that (and this) because the idea of recursion is another pattern my brain enjoys filling in. An effective way to simulate originality though: actively fill in the wrong patterns. Choose an automatic response from another set of ideas. Babies are being sold on the black market? don't automatically intone 'the police should stop that', say 'how inefficient - it should be a legal market'. If someone says we will all be dead one day, instead of reflecting on the meaning this gives to your life, politely point out that they have their statistics wrong; about 5% of people have never died, and it correlates well with those born recently. Depending on your comparative preferences for perceived originality and truth, this can be done to convince most people you are insane and possibly completely immoral: nice socially recognisable signals that you are being original without having to conform to current originality.

Comment author: Senthil 13 October 2007 04:04:27PM 1 point [-]

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

Is such an act possible?

Wittgenstein said that 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.'. I guess 'thinking' can take the place of 'philosophy' in what he said. If seen this way, the act involves a lot of struggle. Even if we do away with words it seems like something else should take its place against which we would have to battle. Or maybe, I'm thinking a lot inside the box :)

Comment author: ArthurHung 14 October 2007 12:56:20AM 1 point [-]

The video at the end makes such nice closure to such a great post. Great taste. I am reminded of Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Eliezer's post here, if I am correct, is meant to make her readers question themselves if they are truly being original or if they are simply following the "other" masses. But a question, here: how many people think, actually think in their daily lives? And by "think", I mean produce truly original thought--impossible without some sort of muse. That's my current hypothesis. Going by that line of reasoning, therefore perhaps truly original thought can only be realized/ created through a true expression of the self through one's ideal (or at least some very synergetic) medium. Perhaps it is only people who reach their true potential/ at the last stage of Maslow's hierarchy who achieve original thought.

We can see from history this amounts to approximately 1% of the population: Da Vinci etc. As individuals then, perhaps the only way we can truly see more original thought from the people around us is to become an original thinker ourselves, to bring ourselves up to that level of so called "genius", which is simply produced by a persistent focus of purpose and passion to get up to that level. Then by changing ourselves, we naturally inspiring others--simply by being ourselves. A wonderful thing.

Of course, this is simply speculation as I'm not at a Da Vinci/Freud/Nietzsche/Krishnamurti (prolific original output) like level--though that is my major life purpose.

Comment author: TGGP4 14 October 2007 06:20:29AM 0 points [-]

I would guess that it is not a state a person has to be in to come up with an original thought but a situation in which unoriginal thoughts seem obviously inapplicable to them. You can't assume because someone produced some great thought they are a separate class of person and will continue to do so. A lot of the things Lord Kelvin said about science near the end of his life seem downright silly today.

Also, Eliezer is not a "her". His wikipedia page has a picture of him, beard and all.

Comment author: Ed3 27 September 2008 02:11:12PM 0 points [-]

"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..."

They do? Can you give an example? I can't recall anybody ever pointing out a location.

And NNs are independent of "general intelligence". NNs are being used to great success in many fields today. The fact that we don't have hard AI is no condemnation of NNs, nor a problem with the phrase "think outside the box". That's quite a leap you made, and I've only read 2 paragraphs so far!

Comment author: benny 27 September 2008 04:06:39PM 2 points [-]

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said at one point that his next book will be about tinkering - how many discoveries were made while the researcher was seeking something else. So directed research is good because it provides an excuse to "tinker", to spot the unexpected and go off on a tangent.

Have you spoken to Taleb? Seems there's lots of common ground. He likes to learn directly from people what's happening.

Comment author: RobinZ 22 October 2009 08:13:59PM *  1 point [-]

P.S. The YouTube video embedded in the post has been removed. One place where the same excerpt appears is here.

Edit: Possibly better, from the Monty Python channel.

Comment author: MrHen 08 February 2010 07:57:35PM 19 points [-]

The way I would word this: The box exists in the map, not the territory. Looking "outside of the box" is still looking at the map.

Comment author: RobinZ 24 February 2010 11:25:59PM 1 point [-]

That is a clever way of putting it!

Comment author: Minds_Eye 04 November 2014 07:45:23PM 1 point [-]

You could always tell them to think inside the chimney. If you're lucky they'll be so confused they'll look at the territory to figure out what you mean, and if you’re really lucky they'll end up thinking downstairs in the attic and never bother you again.

Comment author: thomblake 08 February 2010 08:09:23PM 0 points [-]

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.

It's been going strong in one form or another since the late nineteenth century. William James was a notable supporter of the notion that the human brain had emergent behavior based on the interaction of many simple units, and from this culture came the term "connectionism" that was popular amongst AI speculators Before the War.

Comment author: lutorm 01 June 2010 10:19:20PM 1 point [-]

"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."

but then you say:

"Properties like truth or good design are independent of novelty: 2 + 2 = 4, yes, really, even though this is what everyone else thinks too."

In venture capital it may pay off to avoid doing what every one else does. But in funding grants, it seems there's no advantage to that. It's not like the science get devalued if it's discovered twice. If everyone thinks it's a good grant, then maybe it just is?

Comment author: Kingreaper 14 September 2010 10:25:14AM *  2 points [-]

It's not like the science get devalued if it's discovered twice

If the knowledge discovered has a value X, then discovering it twice gives the discovery an average value X/2, and discovering it thrice gives the discovery an average value X/3.

This is of course a simplification, because the confirmation received from having multiple copies of the discovery is itself of some value, which flattens the value curve; however the value of a confirmation decreases with each confirmation already extant.

Comment author: FeepingCreature 06 May 2011 06:01:05PM *  9 points [-]

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

This video is no longer available because the uploader has closed their YouTube account.

Deep, man.

Comment author: aausch 14 June 2011 04:34:14AM 2 points [-]

The monty python link is stale

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 26 September 2011 09:50:27PM 2 points [-]

Fixed.

Comment author: Hughdo 29 April 2012 01:50:14PM 0 points [-]

I like how these serious logical and moral discussions are juxtaposed with Monty Python.

Comment author: fractalman 17 May 2013 10:18:32PM 1 point [-]

And now I have the urge to build a mousetrap out of as many lasers and rocket launchers as I can get my hands on...which is not, of course, the least bit optimal for the purpose of catching mice.