Analogy leads to innovation
“Almost all innovation happens by making connections between fields that other people don’t realize.”
Robert Lang is a physicist who developed software to create intricate origami. Analogous techniques are being used for other purposes like improving airbag design.
Thinking about something that works under one context and how to apply it to another context is a productive line of inquiry.
The inspiration for Henry Ford’s assembly line came from the observation that a slaughterhouse was a “disassembly line” and that by reversing the process, cars could be assembled one step at a time, with workers repeatedly performing tasks as the cars went by.
Analogies can also be helpful for masking complexity or unfamiliarity.
The “document”, “folder” and “desktop” we use on computers today organize our data in human terms that abstract what is really going on in the computer’s circuity and storage. They no more accurately reflect what is really happening inside the computer than “rewinding” a Youtube video which has never been on tape.
Analogy can stifle innovation
“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.”
Musk is clearly an influential thinker. Rather than recommend thinking by analogy, he argues against it. Why?
He makes the case that analogy thinking can lead to dead ends. For example, before Tesla became a leader in electric car production, most observers felt that the required battery packs would always be too expensive to be commercially viable. Musk’s approach is to look at such issues from first principles. How much are the raw materials that go into a battery pack? What manufacturing processes are required and what do they cost? Does increased scale result in lower unit cost?
Musk applied the same thinking to rocket design and found that launching satellites could be up to 50-fold cheaper if the rockets themselves were reused. This led to his determined efforts to establish rocket reuse.
Analogous thinking would have been to base the economic assumptions on what the incumbent alternatives cost at the time. The conclusion would have been that the desired outcome was impossible.
Squaring the circle
“Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake are acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort.”
I like this quote from Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” for its pragmatism.
I would extend this to include thinking with analogy and thinking with first principles: If analogy thinking is productive, great. If it leads to a dead end, go to first principles thinking.