Research Based on “Lateral Thinking”

19 November 2013

Here is a text I wrote in 2009 for a booklet published by Bielefeld University.

If I had to use one single phrase to sum up my research activities over the last few years, I would call it “research based on lateral thinking.” Lateral thinking, because the particular strength of the research teams I have been working in up to now has been to single out the most unusual links between otherwise only loosely related fields, and then go on to explore these further. This requires not only freedom but also the goodwill of those in charge if one is to generate research in highly differing fields such as informatics, biology, sociology, psychology, philosophy or even the arts—research that some would incorrectly view as unnecessary gimmickry—and then transform this into new knowledge. Bielefeld provides a particularly supportive environment for this way of working in which the core feature is “thinking in unusual directions,” that is, lateral thinking. Its research and administrative structures are characterized by a great deal of freedom—in the positive sense. An open and receptive attitude toward the unusual in science, technology, and the arts is essential for creating a climate in which new links can be forged between these fields. Such open-mindedness is not something that can be taken for granted, because it is difficult to say in advance where findings will be produced, what these will be, whether they can be applied in practice, or how they will fit into future research.

Nonetheless, the success of this strategy is confirmed by the very existence of the cluster of excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) whose structures are designed to link together interdisciplinary activities in engineering and human sciences, that is, to actively support exactly this type of research based on lateral thinking.

To give an example of this kind of research, I shall present a few anecdotes from my daily research work.

I became a member of the neuroinformatics research group more by chance. Like all informatics students in Bielefeld, I had to complete a software project. My choice had been the Extraction and Exploration of Cellular Protein Profiles, a project aiming to extract structural information from pictorial material in biology and transform it into audiovisual representations. During the course of this project, I came to realize that it was the exploration part that I found most exciting. Exploration, that had something to do with research, with expeditions, with freedom. One of my academic advisors at that time, Dr. Hermann, introduced me to an approach he had developed for “Making data perceptible through model-based sonification”; a procedure that can be used to convey structural relations in digital data through hearing instead of the usual approach based on visual impressions. Implementing such a model than became a part of my Diploma thesis. Although I was a student in the neuroinformatics research group, my interests at this time were already miles away from its core topic. Algorithmic models of neural structures have little in common with my topic of alternative data representation. Nonetheless, after successfully completing my diploma, I received a warm welcome as a new member of the research group, not least because its director, Professor Ritter, and my academic advisor, Dr. Hermann, were both friendly enough to actively support my research. Sonification continued to play a role in my PhD, although the overriding algorithmic generation of sounds has since become a passion of mine. And because sounds generally occur in conjunction with interaction, it seemed to be a natural step for me to explore the aspect of human-machine interaction known as tangible interaction. Hence, in recent times, I have been working predominantly on the link between algorithmic sounds and tangible interaction. What both fields have in common is that their classification within a scientific context is still very vague. Hence, it seemed appropriate to take both a scientific and an aesthetic perspective (some areas of new media art feel very drawn to these fields).

In sum, numerous fields of research have come together in my work, even though whether and how far they would be important is something that I could never have said in advance. Nonetheless, they all exert a major influence, and I think that my advisors were justified in trusting me to find my own way to adequately build up my knowledge base. In my opinion, this trust develops particularly well in small teams like the Ambient Intelligence Group in which I am currently working. Hence, the strength of research based on lateral thinking lies in taking wide open research topics and developing something that is really new and well thought out. I hope that freedom of thought and action—even if there is sometimes no clear goal in sight—will continue to have its place in research, and that this will enable the development of lateral ideas forging links between each and every discipline.