Artificial Imagination

Companies are trying out software designed to spur invention

Michael K. Waldman had plenty of time to think about how to build a better pizza box. When he immigrated to Philadelphia in 1990 at age 36, the Russian engineer paid the rent by delivering pizza. The cardboard boxes embodied a classic engineering contradiction. Vents kept the pizzas from getting soggy, but they also allowed the heat to escape. The result: cold pizza.

Waldman posed the problem to Invention Machine Lab, a program he and other Russian engineers devised to inspire and speed invention. With its help, he came up with the idea of adding round bumps to the bottom of the box. That kept the pizza high and dry. The boxes can be closed, keeping the heat in. The company says major pizza chains--which it can't name--are interested.

Invention Machine Lab is a leading example of creativity software, a class of programs aimed at raising the I.Q. of research and development in a time of global competition, brutally short product cycles, and constant cost-cutting. Customers of instant creativity include Ford Motor, AlliedSignal, Procter & Gamble, and Digital Equipment. On Feb. 12, Motorola Inc. gave a boost to Cambridge (Mass.)-based Invention Machine Corp. with a $2 million order for 1,000 copies of its program and the training to use it.

Invention Machine Lab forces engineers to confront the contradiction between objectives that's at the heart of every design problem. To help resolve the contradictions, it draws on 95 "inventive principles" derived from nearly 2.5 million patents--such as "spheroidality," "color changes," or "segmentation." It also steers inventors toward effects drawn from physics, chemistry, and geometry that may be useful, and it suggests how the invention could evolve (table).

Skepticism remains. "The process behind most good inventions is so bizarre," says John Preston, former technology licensing officer for Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's hard to envision a software package that stimulates radical innovation--although incremental advances might be possible."

Still, early customers swear by it. "Having this software is like having your own personal brainstorm power," says Michael Vaynshteyn, a senior project engineer at Xerox Corp. While at Eastman Kodak Co., he used it to come up with a patented mechanical device that raises a pocket camera's flash far enough from the lens to avoid "red eye." The software pointed him, oddly enough, to a system that keeps floating logs aligned. "What caught my eye were some wires that held the logs together," he says. That led him to a spring-loaded system of disks that raises and lowers the flash.

CHIEF BATTLE. Creativity software isn't all focused on product development. A program from Idea Fisher Systems Inc. of Irvine, Calif., works off word associations. Mind Link, from Cambridge-based creativity consultancy Synectics Inc., throws unexpected scenarios at users. Creativity Machine uses "neural network" software developed by former McDonnell Douglas Corp. engineer Steve Thaler in St. Louis to generate everything from music to ideas for superhard materials.

In product-development software, the chief battle is between Invention Machine, where Waldman is vice-president of engineering services, and Ideation International Inc., based in Santa Monica, Calif. Both claim as their intellectual progenitor the Russian scientist and science-fiction author Genrich Altschuller. Now 69 and living in St. Petersburg, Altschuller was sent to the gulag after writing to Stalin on how to systematize Soviet innovation. His problem-solving theory was built on principles embodied in important patents.

Invention Machine's supporters say Valery M. Tsourikov, the company's chairman, CEO, and chief scientist, expanded the base of patents the program draws upon and came up with a friendlier interface. Tsourikov dismisses Ideation's Innovation Workbench as "a reference book, not a problem-solving program." Counters Ben Saltsman, an Ideation project manager: "I can make exactly the same comment about their software." Ideation says it has sold programs to Ford, Pratt & Whitney, and Emerson Electric.

The bickering over Altschuller's legacy is a bit pointless, because any creativity software that produces genuine breakthroughs is bound to find receptive customers. Hot pizza, anyone?

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