In my life as an architect, I find that the single thing which inhibits young professionals, new students most severely, is their acceptance of standards that are too low. If I ask a student whether her design is as good as Chartres, she often smiles tolerantly at me as if to say, "Of course not, that isn't what I am trying to do.... I could never do that."
Then, I express my disagreement, and tell her: "That standard must be our standard. If you are going to be a builder, no other standard is worthwhile. That is what I expect of myself in my own buildings, and it is what I expect of my students." Gradually, I show the students that they have a right to ask this of themselves, and must ask this of themselves. Once that level of standard is in their minds, they will be able to figure out, for themselves, how to do better, how to make something that is as profound as that.
Culturally, tech is dominated by an engineering, goal-driven mindset. It’s much easier to set KPIs, evaluate OKRs, and manage deliverables, when you have a very specific end-goal in mind. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that tech culture is much more sympathetic to AGI and BCI as overall programs of work.
But historically it’s not the case that humanity’s biggest breakthroughs have come about in this goal-driven way. The creation of language – the ur tool for thought – is perhaps the most important occurrence of humanity’s existence. And although the origin of language is hotly debated and uncertain, it seems extremely unlikely to have been the result of a goal-driven process. It’s amusing to try imagining some prehistoric quarterly OKRs leading to the development of language. What sort of goals could one possibly set? Perhaps a quota of new irregular verbs? It’s inconceivable!
Similarly, the invention of other tools for thought – writing, the printing press, and so on – are among our greatest ever breakthroughs. And, as far as we know, all emerged primarily out of open-ended exploration, not in a primarily goal-driven way. Even the computer itself came out of an exploration that would be regarded as ridiculously speculative and poorly-defined in tech today. Someone didn’t sit down and think “I need to invent the computer”; that’s not a thought they had any frame of reference for. Rather, pioneers such as Alan Turing and Alonzo Church were exploring extremely basic and fundamental (and seemingly esoteric) questions about logic, mathematics, and the nature of what is provable. Out of those explorations the idea of a computer emerged, after many years; it was a discovered concept, not a goal. Fundamental, open-ended questions seem to be at least as good a source of breakthroughs as goals, no matter how ambitious. This is difficult to imagine or convince others of in Silicon Valley’s goal-driven culture. Indeed, we ourselves feel the attraction of a goal-driven culture. But empirically open-ended exploration can be just as, or more successful.