Computer-Assisted Creative Thinking

TOM DUKE of Burlington, Iowa, calls himself a "scientific farmer." And I guess he is.

Every fall, he has to spray the inside of his grain bins with an insecticide. It's a dirty job, climbing up a ladder with the toxic chemical. So last year, casting about for alternatives, Tom tried a computer program called Mindlink Problem Solver.

And something clicked with bumblebees.

"Wouldn't it be great if we had a bumblebee to spray the walls for us?" he recalls thinking. "So I picked up a piece of aluminum tubing to see how it would look." From imagining a bumblebee flying around his bins, he started thinking about the aluminum pipe. He invented and built a pipe-and-sprayer contraption that lets him reach the highest walls without a ladder. He credits Mindlink for its mental prodding.

Mindlink of North Pomfret, Vt., is one of a small but growing number of companies that sell "brainstorming" software or "computer-assisted thinking."

Four weeks ago, Bernard Joy had a ticklish problem. His church's development committee spent weeks batting around fund-raising ideas for the church school. But it couldn't develop a plan. So Bernard, a pastor with the Memorial Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., gathered the committee. Then he opened a program called Project KickStart, typed their ideas into his notebook computer, and let the committee see the process on an external monitor he had hooked up.

"In an hour and 15 minutes, we walked out of there with a plan," he says. A week later, the group met again and, using Project KickStart, assigned each of the plan's 50 or 60 steps to a person. It's too early to tell if the plan will work, he adds. "What the computer did was to enable us to structure the process."

Computer-assisted thinking? Imagination at the touch of a keyboard? It sounds like a gimmick. Or vaguely scary.

Sure, computers help people make decisions by organizing data in a better way. But jump-starting their creativity? Hmmmm.

I had a business trip to organize with stops in four states and lots of interviews. I pulled out "The Idea Generator Plus," created by the same company that sells KickStart. Some computer magazines rate IdeaFisher higher, a powerful and flexible program from Fisher Idea Systems in Irvine, Calif. But at $595, it's twice as expensive as Mindlink ($299) or Idea Generator ($195).

The Idea Generator was easy to load and operate. It asked me to state my problem (a successful business trip) and my goals. Then it threw me into something called "Idea Generation."

I looked at my problem from all angles. I typed in ideas from how I had handled similar situations; ideas from metaphors ("a business trip is like a voyage of discovery"); ideas from people I admired and my own pessimistic, optimistic, and dreamer perspectives. Idea Generator wanted to know how I could make the trip a failure - then asked me how to reverse those failure ideas.

After two hours nonstop, it beeped.

"You have been using the program for more than two hours. How about a break?" it suggested. I answered, "Yes." Then I called Roy Nierenberg, president of Experience in Software, the Berkeley, Calif., company that makes the software and its $97.50 sister program, KickStart.

The program doesn't think for you, it draws your knowledge into the open, he says. People do that without computers, of course. But after four or five creative ideas, they tend to stop. "There's distractions, being worn out - there's lots of reasons to stop," he says. The program, by contrast, easily gets you to type in dozens of ideas and then evaluate them.

I came up with 79 for my trip. Many were obvious, some were oddball. A few were gems I might have overlooked without the discipline the program afforded.

So I'm keeping the Idea Generator. But somewhere out there a warning light is flashing. Computer-assisted thinking may lead to great benefits one day. But it may also blur the vital distinction between mind and machine, creativity and key-punching.

We need to think more about this - unassisted, I think, by those friendly computers.

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