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Rebecca Zisser / Axios

We have many problems, few apparent solutions, and could use some novel ideas about what to do next. Among inventors, the flash of genius comes not from nowhere, but usually by analogy — one thing is so, so why not another? In the 1940s, this was how Italian microbiologist Salvador Luria, watching a slot machine work, conceived his Nobel Prize-winning extension of Darwinism to bacteria. In 1666, Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree, and originated his theory of gravity.

The trouble with this approach to invention is the unpredictability of a good analogy — you simply have to wait for that spark. But in a new paper, researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Hebrew University say they've made an advance toward automating the process of finding and melding wholly unconnected things into big ideas.

To get started, says Carnegie Mellon's Aniket Kittur, researchers hired a bunch of people as a crowd-sourcing group. Their assignment: to attach analogy labels to hundreds of products.

  • These descriptions were fed into a neuron network—a machine-learning system—which trained on them.
  • The machine, after investigating far more material, spit out what, in its view, were related analogies.
  • Those were handed back to the crowd-source group, which used them to suggest new products.
  • The result: the human-AI team produced the most innovative ideas, the researchers said.

A first step: "Analogy has driven human progress," Kittur tells Axios. "This doesn't solve the whole thing. But it is the first step showing the practical benefits of finding analogies at scale."

The context: People have tracked papers that can be called scientific by today's definition back to 1650. Since then, researchers have produced about 70 million of them, and their numbers double more or less every nine years, according to a 2014 paper in Nature.

  • Against that backdrop, it's easy to see why striking an analogy — making an original observation by connecting the deep meaning in far-removed facts, and skipping their surface appearances — is so hard and rare. "It's impossible for any scientist to stay on top of his own field, less where there might be connections," says Kittur. He calls this problem the "analogy gap."
  • Researchers have tried for decades to figure out how to bridge that gap — to speed up the process computationally and "find analogies at scale," Kittur says. He himself had been attempting to use crowd-sourcing to short-circuit the pathway there when he teamed up with Hebrew University's Dafna Shahaf, who had been working on a computerized approach.
  • They combined the two, working with two graduate students — Tom Hope and Joel Chan — and the result is the paper, presented Aug. 17 at a conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

How it works: The primary problem is that computers don't quite understand the nuances of words. So you need to clearly define your purpose — what you are seeking in an analogy — and then associate it with at least one mechanism for accomplishing it.

  • A purpose would be getting a nail into a wall.
  • A hammer is a mechanism for doing so.

Conceptually speaking, you are training the neural network as to what a purpose and a mechanism look like, which is a lot harder than it looks. That's why the researchers began with crowd-sourced examples of hundreds of products with their purposes and mechanisms labeled, a solid foundation to train the neural network.

Bottom line: "We are not in the business of building an AI that would take over the entire scientific process," Kittur said. "But we think we could enhance scientific creativity. We hope there will be some pearls in there."

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

British national named in Colleyville synagogue standoff

A law enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

British national Malik Faisal Akram took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, the FBI said in a statement.

State of play: Authorities had initially declined to release the name of the 44-year-old suspect or identify the hostages, all adults, though police chief Michael Miller confirmed that one of those held was Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who leads the congregation.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron — WHO recommends 2 new treatments — What "mild" really means when it comes to Omicron — Deaths are climbing as cases skyrocket.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas— Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements— Supreme Court blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers.
  3. Politics: Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health" — Focus group says Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy
  4. Economy: America's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic— — CDC COVID guidance for cruise ships to be optional starting Saturday — The cost of testing.
  5. States: West Virginia governor feeling "extremely unwell" after positive test — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers — America struggles to keep schools open
  6. World: Beijing reports first local Omicron case weeks before Winter Olympics — Teachers in France stage mass walkout over COVID protocols.
  7. Variant tracker
10 hours ago - Sports

Novak Djokovic loses Australian visa appeal

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a forehand during a practice session ahead of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2022. Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Tennis star Novak Djokovic left Australia on Sunday evening, facing a three-year visa ban after an appeals court in the country revoked his visa.

Driving the news: Djokovic will not be able to defend his Australian Open title when the tournament starts in Melbourne. The World No. 1 is looking to break a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most Grand Slam men's singles titles.