Out-of-the-Box Thinking in an In-the-Box World
by Philip Emeagwali
Keynote speech by famed supercomputer pioneer
I once believed that capital was another word for money, the accumulated wealth of a country or its people. Surely, I thought, wealth is determined by the money or property in one’s possession. Then I saw a Deutsche Bank advertisement in the Wall Street Journal that proclaimed: “Ideas are capital. The rest is just money.”
I was struck by the simplicity of such an eloquent and forceful idea. I
started imagining what such power meant for
If ideas are capital, why is
When African men and women of ideas, who will give birth to new ideas,
have fled to
The first annual report by J.P. Morgan Chase, a firm with assets of 1.3 trillion dollars, reads: “The power of intellectual capital is the ability to breed ideas that ignite value.” This quote is a clarion call to African leaders to shift purposefully and deliberately from a focus on things to a focus on information; from exporting natural resources to exporting knowledge and ideas; and from being a consumer of technology to becoming a producer of technology.
The intellectual capital needed to produce products and services will
lead to the path of poverty alleviation. Intellectual capital, defined as the
collective knowledge of the people, increases productivity. The latter — by
driving economic growth — alleviates poverty, always and everywhere, even in
Those who create new knowledge are producing wealth, while those who consume it are producing poverty. If you attend a Wole Soyinka’s production of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” you consume the knowledge produced by Soyinka and Achebe as well as the actor’s production, much like I consume the knowledge and production of Bob Marley’s through his songs.
We will need wisdom, that which turns too much information — or information overload — into focused power, not only to process, but also to evaluate the overwhelming amount of information available on the Internet. This wisdom will give us the competitive edge and enable us to find creative solutions.
story illustrates the difference between information and wisdom. Twelve hundred
years ago, in the city of
One day, Al-Khwarizmi
was riding a camel laden down with algebraic manuscripts to the holy city of
“My children, why are you crying?” he enquired.
“Our father, upon his death, instructed us to divide his 17 camels as follows:
‘To my oldest son I leave half of my camels, my second son shall have one-third of my camels, and my youngest son is to have one-ninth of my camels.’”
“What, then, is your problem?” Al-Khwarizmi asked.
“We have been to school and learned that 17 is a prime number that is, divisible only by one and itself and cannot be divided by two or three or nine. Since we love our camels, we cannot divide them exactly,” they answered.
Al-Khwarizmi thought for a while and asked, “Will it help if I offer my camel and make the total 18?”
“No, no, no,” they cried.
“You are on your way to
“Go ahead, have my camel, and divide the 18 camels amongst yourselves,” he said, smiling.
So the eldest took one-half of 18 — or nine camels. The second took one-third of 18 — or six camels. The youngest took one-ninth of 18 — or two camels. After the division, one camel was left: Al-Khwarizmi’s camel, as the total number of camels divided among the sons (nine plus six plus two) equaled 17.
Then Al-Khwarizmi asked, “Now, can I have my camel back?”
These young men had information about prime numbers, but they lacked the wisdom to use the information effectively. It is the manipulation of information to accomplish seemingly impossible purposes that defines true wisdom.
Today, we have ten billion pages of information posted on the Internet — more than enough to keep us busy the rest of our lives, and new information is being added daily. More information has been created in the last 100 years than in all of the previous 100,000 years combined. We need the wisdom to sift through and convert these billions of pages into information riches.
The genius of Al-Khwarizmi was not in his mathematical wizardry or even his book knowledge: It was in his experiential knowledge — his big-picture, right-brain thinking; creativity; innovation; and wisdom. It was his wisdom to add a camel to make the total 18 and still get his camel back.
Prime numbers are to whole numbers what the laws
of physics are to physics. Twenty years ago, I used an Al-Khwarizmi approach to solve a
notoriously difficult problem in physics. I added inertial force, which enabled
me to reformulate
Like Al-Khwarizmi, I derived my 18 equations through out-of-the-box thinking in an in-the-box world, adding my metaphorical camel: inertial force. In other words, I applied wisdom to known knowledge to generate intellectual capital.
For the video recording of the above speech, visit emeagwali.com.
Who is Philip Emeagwali?
Philip Emeagwali was voted history's greatest scientist
(#1) of African descent — and the 35th greatest African of
all time — in a survey for the September 2004 issue of the London-based New African magazine. President Bill Clinton extolled Philip Emeagwali as “the Bill Gates of
Philip Emeagwali visiting African students at the