Imagine a world in which...

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Last semester I worked on a project with Joy Kim, who is interested in building tools to help creativity. Over the quarter we worked on a system that would allow Mechanical Turk workers (turkers) to assist in the creative writing process. As the research progressed, we slowly moved away from having turkers “assist” in the process and more towards them actually making all of the contributions.

Unfortunately, they won’t very good at it. We tried lots of different things, but the result was always a poor, non-cohesive story, many of which ended in abrupt death. In a meeting with our professor, Michael Bernstein, we explained how things were going and the idea came out that maybe turkers just weren’t good for the creative story process. Michael’s response to that idea had a great impact on the way I think about research. He said,

Maybe you’re right. Maybe they aren’t good at this creative writing. But… imagine a world in which turkers are really good at creative writing. What would that world look like? Now, see if you can build that.

Those aren’t his exact words, but that was the idea. His idea really struck a chord with me, and it has changed the way I approach research problems. Research is hard and there are not a lot of answers. But… it wouldn’t be research if that weren’t the case. Framing research problems in this manner has given me a much better perspective for how to accomplish or at least break down hard problems.

Also, I realize that I am going to be spending the next 5 years working on research problems and that part of my responsibility is to think about ways in which the world could be different. What do I want the world to be like in five or ten years down the road? Which of those changes are interesting to me, and what can I do to help move the world in that direction.