Dr. Anthony McCaffrey Featured in The Guardian

January 18, 2013 in Home Slideshow

Dr. Anthony McCaffrey’s work on analogy finder has been featured in a column in The Guardian.

McCaffrey, last featured here addressing the related matter of “functional fixedness” – the mental block that stops us seeing alternative uses for everyday objects – begins with an observation: most creative breakthroughs arise through analogy. Alexander Graham Bell modelled the telephone on the human ear. A hitch with the Hubble space telescope was fixed when a Nasa engineer taking a shower in a German hotel saw how he might borrow the design of the shower head. Enter the problem you’re trying to solve, and McCaffrey’s “analogy finder” software, already released in initial form, will hunt patent databases, research libraries, et cetera, for analogous solutions. He cites the example of a ski company, beset by a major problem: at high speeds, their skis vibrated, lost contact with the snow and sent skiers out of control.

The key to a solution lies in how you state the problem. You need to strip it of context and colour; more technically, McCaffrey argues, you need to reduce it to a specific form: “verb, noun-phrase, prepositional-phrases”. What the ski firm really needed to do was to “reduce vibrations over 1,800 hertz”. From there, it’s an easier leap from one domain to another: similar vibrations, it turns out, play havoc with violins, causing sound distortion. Violin designers address this by using a metal grid; the ski designers, finding the analogy, adapted it: problem solved.

-Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

Illustration by Phil Wrigglesworth for the Guardian

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