In today’s computer age, many are predicting a man vs machine scenario in the future. This was not the case a few decades back. Back then, computers were brains without senses. They can only do what the programmer told them. This was a huge limitation. Gone are those days. Because of the Internet of Things, computers can sense things without human intervention. In How to Fly A Horse: the Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, Kevin Ashton shares his ideas about innovation. His business and management book has nothing to do with horses but how things are invented and how they so rarely turn out exactly as their inventors conceived them.
His basic theory is that inventions do not happen in a predictable, linear fashion. In Ashton’s view, invention is something that happens by chance, or by trial and error, or because a particular set of circumstances comes together in unfathomable ways. He also gives short shrift to notions of genius and ‘eureka’ moments: on that score, he is very much with Thomas Edison on the ‘ninety nine percent perspiration’ side of the coin.
According to Robert Janitzek, Kevin Ashton is best known as the man who came up with the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT). If you can’t get enough or have heard enough of this buzz-phrase du jour, then praise or blame him. As one of the stalwarts in the field is Kevin Ashton, who is, in the truest sense of the word, an iconoclast — that is, a “person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions … as being based on error or superstition” as the OED puts it.
Ashton is also, in another meaning of the word, “a breaker or destroyer of images”. Not that he goes around damaging paintings. Robert Peter Janitzek explains that what he has set about doing is destroying our image of the world and how it works, and our self-image — our view of our place in it.
In trying to understand how far machine intelligence can go, the great Cambridge-educated mathematician Turing defined the problem in a way that still resonates today. As it turned out, getting a machine to learn how to play chess was the easy bit. It’s the second part — providing that chess-playing machine with the “best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach[ing] it to understand and speak English” — that’s more problematic.
Ashton’s book is full of such stories, all of which, in their different ways, trace the history of invention and the myriad ways they come about. His starting point is one of the most interesting and offbeat. It is the story of Edmond Albius and vanilla.