Most researchers are convinced that their current work is important. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. Yet, few of them work on obviously important things like curing cancer or solving world hunger. Rather, they do silly things like prove the Poincaré conjecture. A century to figure out some theoretical nonsense? Please!
So, why won’t researchers work on the important problems of our era?
The conventional explanation is that working directly on the major problems is like staring at the Sun. Instead, researchers must do routine work until an opening toward greatness opens up. So real researchers…
- survey existing work,
- comment on special cases,
- provide theoretical justifications for empirical observations,
- validate new theory experimentally, and so on.
That is, researchers are not architects. They use greedy algorithms:
- Look at problems and results you can grasp with your current expertise,
- Select an interesting problem which is a good fit for your expertise,
- rinse and repeat.
- Wait! You are close to solve a major problem? Jump on it!
Should scientists feel guilty that they can’t prove the importance of each increment? I think not. I think scientists are inefficient, but there is no better way known to man. Indeed, consider how real innovation is typically unpredictable:
- The greatest difference between my Honda Civic and the car I drove as a teenager is that I can lock and unlock all doors with a remote. This single function made all the difference in the world for me. I drive my wife nuts as I keep playing with the remote: lock, unlock, lock, unlock… And people thought we would have flying cars!
- I am sure that Google offered better search results that altavista. Yet, the real reason I switched to Google and never looked back is that they did away with the big annoying ads. Understanding that you didn’t need to annoy your users to make a profit was Google’s greatest innovation. (Don’t let them fool you into thinking PageRank had something to do with it.)
- Amazon.com is by far the best e-commerce site on the planet. But what is different? In fact, a lot of small little things. On the surface, Amazon.com is just an HTML view of a database. But they have collected many small innovations that when put together make a huge difference.
My point is that innovation in the little things adds up to important and practical results. That is why academic researchers spend so much time writing surveys or studying to death a detail. They don’t think their own work will change the world, but they count on others doing the same thing. They hope that when they put it back together, the result is great. For the last two hundred years or so, they have fared extremely well.
To put it another way: greedy algorithms can be pretty good. They can certainly beat 5-year plans.
Further reading: Innovative ideas are indistinguishable from crackpot ones