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Creating new breakthroughs by thinking without the box


I often use the term “Thinking without the box”, something that leaves people puzzled so I decided to articulate a little bit more about this concept. It’s about inspiring brainstorming by reaching into the abyss of the deep unknown.


Many technological innovations were very much informed by experiences. That is, experiences that were shaped by our interactions with our environment. Early humans observed the flow of water bodies and decided to use water mill to harvest its energy. From this, it inspired the invention of the engine and sparked the development of a mechanical system made entirely out of gears, axles, wheels, etc.


Things might have turned out differently if the early human decided to focus first on other sources of energy, for e.g., sunlight, geothermal, etc and that might have given rise to a different type of mechanical system.


Let’s say, for example, instead of transmitting energy from engine to gears and axles, we might have inherited a system that depended on expansion and contraction for energy transmission. That might make a lot of differences to how we conceptualise future designs, shifting from ideas that depended largely on linear movement to maybe one that’s omni-directional in 2D.


Like some of you, I like to drive cars occasionally and I am always amazed when I take the steering wheel. Even till now, I still wonder why car design turned out the way it is. Why the steering wheel? Why the gear box? Why the car design?


Cars are generally shaped to be elongated so that it reduces wind drag in a single direction. Its wheel design is thus shaped to assist cars with bi-directional movements i.e., that are to move back and forth.


Who would have known, maybe, in another place with different environmental conditions, the early inhabitants might have focused their initial attention on harvesting other forms of energy which then inspired them to build things differently?


We might inherit a different type of car design, maybe one that spherical, triangular, etc? Why must everyone sit in the same cabin? Can’t it be individual vehicular pods that connect to each other mid-way for distribution of energy and to save energy for long distance travel, then disconnecting from body of connected vehicular pods when it is charged or no longer has the same travel path as the rest of the pods?


Maybe instead of having wheels, we might depend directly on the body shape of the vehicles for movement.


Why not?


So, what I am saying is, most of our innovations are inspired by early innovators’ experience with the environment, and it continually influences future concepts and designs.


You could think within the box or think outside the box, but somehow or rather, that particular box has some influence in how we think. To think without the box is to break free from existing ideas and underlying assumptions for breakthroughs.


One way to strengthen this type of mindset is to continually question why we innovate the way we do, why we create the way we do. Through deep introspective questioning, we would uncover the constraints that prevent us from shaping ground-breaking concepts.


Why these assumptions for mathematics? Why do our machines understand instructions in binary code? Why such propulsion systems? What if our first machines were developed to understand instructions in different spectrum of colours instead? Would data transmission be faster? Inspired a different type of computer system setup or changed the way how data are stored?


Who knows? But it’s entirely possible.


The thing is many of our innovations are built on past experience. These type of solutions or innovations may be useless for a business industry that may disappear in time to come.


Let’s be really radical with a thought experiment. What if people from the future no longer “see” time on a watch dial? Some revolutionary time keeping devices could change the way people prefer to keep track of time. Shifting their habit to listening to time instead? Or maybe visualising (think) time within their mind or in their contact lenses. Ok, let’s be really radical, what if people preferred to feel time or maybe even smell time?


Some might think it’s crazy to feel time or smell time.


Let’s take a step back if we think that this concept is ridiculous. Why do we even think that it is ridiculous? Could it be that we are too conditioned by our past experience of tracking time in numerical values, to the point that we can’t even consider other methods? Could this subconscious restraint prevent us from making new breakthroughs?


Let’s throw ourselves into a dramatically different future.


What if in the far future, the Sun expanded by so much that the sunlight has almost destroyed human’s physical vision and because of that, we had to depend on other sensory faculties to keep track of time?


Now, it doesn’t seem to be that crazy to read time by thinking, smelling, feeling or listening.


Doesn’t it?


So, a device that allows you to tell time by thinking, smelling, feeling or listening, wouldn’t do much good if it doesn’t have any traction with the buyers. Many new breakthroughs started out this way, with zero traction.  That’s why we need a solid marketing and user experience plan that builds adoption steadily, in order to disrupt an existing business.

The future of work: Fusion of humans, robots and artificial intelligence


The retail industry has certainly been through a lot throughout the entire Covid-19 saga and its still undergoing a lot of staffing challenges. Some workers refused to go to work because they are concerned about being infected by the Covid-19 virus. On top of this, the number of takeaways has increased dramatically, resulting in massive work load.

The industry has already been suffering from staffing shortages even before the Covid-10 pandemic and this pandemic only exacerbated the problem. So, some companies have decided to develop retail stores that are entirely powered and controlled by IT technology, such as the ones in Singapore. They call it AI-stores and the operations were designed to be cashier-less and checkout-free.

AI-Powered Retail Therapy

While most of the operations are powered by IT capabilities, humans are still required to replenish dwindling stocks and there is also limitations to how the IT capabilities could react to unforeseen circumstances.

Recently, Japan released their prototype robot that can be controlled remotely to replenish drinks stock. I think that this could augment the AI stores. This robot has a wider range of motions as compared to the stores’ mechanised fixtures. Workers who are concerned about being infected by Covid-19 can simply choose to work from home with this robot.

Plus, those who are differently-abled can now work with this robot to perform tasks that they could not perform previously. Managing the shift-work is also a major issue among management. With this robot, the manager can schedule tasks among different employees without concern about travelling time.

In a way, it is also much safer for the workers because they are not physically exposed to any potential high-risk situations (robbery?) as well.

The companies that worked on this robot are pushing for the next frontier in that they are coding more scenarios and improving hardware capabilities. This so that the robot can handle different types of products other than drinks.

While the prototype is just meant for the retail sector, the potential to extend this capability to other sectors is certainly possible. Funnily, the prototype initially comprised the robotic arm, carrier box and the motorised wheel system, and the “head” was later added on to make it more human-like to the customers.

This idea could also be extended to sectors like construction, manufacturing, maintenance work, healthcare and many other sectors as well. A company can simply set up this system in any parts of the world and access workers from anywhere. There is improved efficiencies in manpower allocation and cost-saving from having to deal less with visa applications (if the deployment is cross-border).

A lot of people focus on the idea that AI is going to exclude humans in the future of work but there are other possibilities as well.  I think maybe we should stop dwelling on how this technology could be weaponised. Instead of that, why not focus our attention on a positive future and manifest that possibility. This is a clear example of how humans, AI and robotics can come together in the future of work.

I am looking forward to the prototypes’ update. They will be announcing it soon. With this, we will be able to open up a new working environment to differently-abled people and embrace whoever was excluded from proper employment.

Imagine receiving a welcome-to-work mail package comprising the remote-controllers and googles and that is it, you can begin to start work in your room when your shift has begun!


This Month I Learnt: Gel Electrophoresis


For fun, I decided to commit to learning one new thing per month. Something that is completely out of my knowledge domain. This month, I decided to learn to perform a simulated experiment of a process known as gel electrophoresis. Basically this process is used in clinical chemistry to separate proteins by charge or size and in biochemistry and molecular biology to separate a mixed population of DNA and RNA fragments by length, to estimate the size of DNA and RNA fragments or to separate proteins by charge.



We used dyes for this experiment. The samples are then transferred to the gel electrophoresis box, segregated by internal wells within the box so that they do not mix. These dyes differ in size, with the yellow dye being the smallest, the blue dye being larger and the purple dye being the largest. 


Always remember to balance the test tubes within the micro centrifuge before activating the spin. 


An electric field is applied to transport molecules (such as DNA) along the agarose gel. The electric field is made up of a negative charge on one end that pushes molecules through the gel and a positive charge on the other end that pulls molecules through the gel.


The charge determines how far the dye migrates in the gel; the purple dye has a greater negative charge per mass than the blue dye. As a result, it migrated farther than the blue dye in the gel, despite being larger in size.


By choosing an agarose gel of different concentration, we can also sieve the molecules according to their lengths, the shorter molecules move faster and migrate farther than longer ones because shorter molecules migrate more easily through the pores of the gel. This phenomenon is called sieving. So, it is either sieving by electrical charges or by the length of the molecules. 

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