Learn Like Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil was just interviewed by Ubiquity online magazine. They covered the usual topics, same old questions from any Ray Kurzweil interview with answers that are often nearly straight from his books.

However, there was a gem in this one about how Ray likes to pick a problem to tackle every night before he goes to bed and why its best to tackle these problems while sleeping. Below is the relevant portion of the interview.

From an interview with Ubiquity online magazine:

UBIQUITY: Is pattern recognition, though, a generalizable talent that can be replicated and transferred? You’ve had an astonishing record as an inventor, and you seem to have started when you were�what?�age five or something?

KURZWEIL: Well, five was when I fashioned myself an inventor; I decided I was going to be an inventor when I was five, and I never really wavered from that. When other kids were wondering whether they would be, firemen or teachers, I always had this conceit, “Well, I know I’m going to be an inventor,” and that never changed.

UBIQUITY: I had the same conceit but I never invented anything, so what I’m wondering now is what is the nature of your pattern recognition talent? How do you actually go about inventing things? What’s the trick? Because I suspect that if you went into any environment whatsoever, you would invent something for that environment. Is that a fair assumption?

KURZWEIL: Yes, well, part of it is a belief in the power of ideas, and a confidence that I can find the ideas to solve a problem, and that these ideas exist. One technique is to just to use one’s imagination. Imagine that a particular problem has been solved, and imagine what the solution would have to look like. So I’ll fantasize that I’m giving a presentation four years from now, and describing the invention to my audience, and then I’ll imagine what would I have to be saying, and what characteristics would the invention have to have? And then I work backwards: OK, if it’s a reading machine, well it would have to somehow pick up the image of the page�well how would it do that? And you use your imagination to break it down into smaller and smaller problems.

UBIQUITY: And this isn’t a poetic conceit now? You really do work that way?

KURZWEIL: Yes, that is how I work. And I actually have a specific mental technique where I do this at night. I’ve been doing this for several decades. When I go to sleep I assign myself a problem.

UBIQUITY: For example?

KURZWEIL: It might be some mathematical problem or some practical issue for an invention or even a business strategy question or an interpersonal problem. But I’ll assign myself some problem where there’s a solution, and I try not to solve it before I go to sleep but just try to think about what do I know about this? What characteristics would a solution have? And then I go to sleep. Doing this primes my subconscious to think about it. Sigmund Freud said accurately that when we dream, some of the censors in our brain are relaxed, so that you might dream about things that are socially taboo or sexually taboo, because the various censors in our brain that say “You can’t think that thought!” are relaxed. So we think about weird things that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to think about during the day.

There are also professional blinders that prevent people from thinking creatively. Mental blocks such as “You can’t solve a signal processing problem that way” or “Linguistics is not supposed to be done this way.” Those assumptions are also relaxed in your dream state, and so you’ll think about new ways of solving problems without being burdened by constraints like that. Another thing that’s not working when you’re dreaming is your rational faculties to evaluate whether an idea is reasonable, and that’s why fantastic things will happen in the dream, and the most amazing thing of all is that you don’t think these fantastic things are amazing. So, let’s say, an elephant walks through the wall, you don’t say, “My God, how did an elephant walk through the wall?” You just say, “OK, an elephant walked through wall, no big deal.” So your rational faculties are also not working.

The next step is in the morning, in this half-way state between dreaming and being awake, what I call lucid dreaming, I still have access to the dream thoughts. But now I’m sufficiently conscious to also have my rational faculties. And I can evaluate these ideas, these new creative ideas that came to me during the night, and actually see which ones make sense. After 15 to 20 minutes, generally, if I stay in that state, I can have keen new insights into whatever the problem was that I assigned myself. And I’ve come up with many inventions this way. I’ve come up with solutions to problems. If I have a key decision to make, I’ll always go through this process. And I’ll then have a real confidence in the decision, as opposed to just trying to guess at the answer. So this is the mental technique I use to try to combine creative thinking with rational thinking.

UBIQUITY: What implications might your technique have for education?

KURZWEIL: Well, I do think that for kids (or really for people at any age) the best way to learn something is to try to solve real problems that are meaningful to them. If, for example, you’re trying to create a reading machine, then you learn about optics. And you learn about signal processing, and image enhancement techniques and all of these different things that you need to know in order to solve the problem. If you really have a compelling need to solve these problems, you will learn about them. If you’re trying to create, let’s say, a hip hop song, well you learn about the history of hip hop, and how it emerged from other forms of music. And you learn something about urban culture. So learning things in context, where you’re actually trying to make a contribution yourself, is a very motivating way to learn�as opposed to just trying to dryly learn facts out of context and without a purpose for learning them.