Scientific Purpose, Creative Genius & Strategic Beauty: A Conversation with Nobel Laureate, Dr. Eric Maskin

By Steve Gotz, Silicon Foundry & Naotake Murayama

Dr. Eric Maskin (Courtesy of Harvard University)

Earlier this year Silicon Foundry, in collaboration with BCG and Cryptic Labs, had the privilege of hosting Dr. Eric Maskin, the Adams University Professor at Harvard and joint winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics for foundational work on the theory of Mechanism Design.

Most people have never heard of Dr. Maskin’s work. Mechanism Design is what enables markets, that underpin virtually every aspect of our lives, to function properly. Dr. Maskin’s work is of particular relevance to the current debate around Silicon Valley and the incentive systems at work in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and extends much beyond the topic of his lecture we hosted — the nature and role of cryptocurrencies and the underlying distributed ledger technologies. For an in-depth introduction to Mechanism Design and its implications for Silicon Valley, I recommend Dr. Usama Fayyad’s introduction.

After Dr. Maskin’s lecture I had the privilege of speaking with him about a broad range of topics including music, creativity and the nature of scientific beauty. Below is a transcript of that conversation with minimal editing for readability.

Interview Transcript: Dr. Eric Maskin & Steve Gotz

Steve Gotz: Dr. Maskin, thank you for making time. I realize you just provided us with a fascinating lecture on cryptocurrencies, but I hope you won’t mind if we steer this conversation in a different direction. What I’d love to talk about is creativity and its connection to the scientific and business world. As I was preparing for this conversation I observed that in virtually every article or interview you talk about music and harmony. It struck me that creativity and the arts are important to the work you do. Could you talk about that?

Dr. Maskin: Yes. Well, one thing that creative musicians value, particularly composers, is beauty. Beauty has certain components, symmetry, simplicity, harmony all of these go into creating a beautiful piece of music. But interestingly the same aesthetic principles are behind our most creative thinkers in other realms. If you look at creative mathematicians for example, they’re also looking for beauty, [a kind of] beauty which is not so different from the beauty in music. In natural science when Einstein was trying to figure out how the world works and what the forces of nature were, ultimately his guide to what was true and what was not true was beauty. He felt that the world was a beautiful place and it must work according to beautiful rules. And so I see many realms of human endeavor, science, music and arts, social science as all being motivated by, on a deep level, the same quest for beauty.

Steve Gotz: It’s interesting you mentioned Einstein because he has a wonderful quote that says “the greatest scientists are artists as well.”

Dr. Maskin: And I think he was right about that. By the way I had the pleasure of living in Einstein’s house in Princeton for 10 years.

Steve Gotz: Oh my, how exactly did you arrange that?

Dr. Maskin: It was pure luck of timing. Einstein worked at the Institute for Advanced Studies and when he died his family donated the house to the Institute so that it could be used as a residence for future faculty members. And it turned out that I was arriving [in 2000] just as the previous occupants were leaving so the house was vacant. So I took advantage of that. And at the time Einstein’s old piano was actually in the house. Unfortunately it was not in very good shape. So we had to move it out of the house but it was there.

Steve Gotz: Wow, that’s amazing. If I recall correctly, you play the clarinet?

Dr. Maskin: Yes, I play the clarinet and piano.

Steve Gotz: And was that something you started from a young age?

Dr. Maskin: It did, I come from a musical family. My mother was a professional musician and concert pianist. My father was not a professional but he would have liked to. And my brother is a professional oboist. So I was the black sheep of the family. I did not become a professional musician myself.

Steve Gotz: But yet it infuses a lot of the work you do.

Dr. Maskin: Sure it does, as I said, I think that the same qualities that musicians seek are pursued by those of us in economics and mathematics so I try to draw on these principles of beauty as motivation for my own work.

Steve Gotz: I’m curious what this actually looks like. When you’re going about your day do you see mechanisms in action? Do you visualize mechanisms? How do you explore these ideas in your mind?

Dr. Maskin: I work in what’s called the inductive way. That is, I like to look at lots of examples. Mechanisms are systems for accomplishing some goal. And I look around the world, what mechanisms are there. I take little notes with pen and paper as I find examples of mechanisms. And then when I’ve looked at a lot of little instances of mechanisms I try to say well what is there — are there some principles, basic principles behind all of these mechanisms. What can we infer from all these examples about what’s going on in general. That’s the way I try to work from the very particular to the rather abstract. Ultimately the value of the abstraction of the principle is that it then explains why we have all of these specific mechanisms.

Steve Gotz: It sounds like there’s something very intuitive and organic to your process of discovery. It’s something I think about quite a bit. I have three young children and obviously in Silicon Valley there’s a strong focus on STEM (science technology engineering and maths) but what I don’t see is an equally strong focus on the arts and the humanities.

Dr. Maskin: Yes. I think there’s something missing [in education] and again I come back to why, to what we’re looking for in science and technology. Ultimately, I think we are looking for beauty. Beauty is something intrinsically satisfying to us humans; there are good reasons why we love beauty. And one way of learning to recognize beauty is through music and the arts which is why I think even hard core technologists and scientists are well advised to have exposure to art and music because they learn to know what’s beautiful.

Steve Gotz: Exactly. I see this with my children’s education. Students today get math without music. They get science without intuition. They get knowledge without imagination. And that strikes me as a dangerous imbalance in our current education system.

Dr. Maskin: In the end it’s going to limit our creativity. The big creative leaps by the Einsteins and Newtons, by Mozart and Stravinsky in the musical realm were made by people who valued intuition and sought simplicity and beauty. And if we’re not encouraging that kind of thinking, that kind of seeking then we’re going to put limits on what we can accomplish in the future.

Steve Gotz: Indeed. I spoke with Whit Diffie earlier this week about the early-days of public-key encryption, before him and Hellman made their discovery. And he made a fascinating observation. He said that Hellman was smarter but he was more creative and imaginative. If you rewind 40+ years to the time you made your seminal discovery, what was that like and did music play a role in inspiring you?

Dr. Maskin: Yeah. So the paper that got me so much attention was the one I wrote in 1977. It took me a long time to come up with the results in that paper. It took years. And I followed this process that I was talking about a few minutes ago of taking lots and lots of examples and then trying to draw general principles from those examples. So what I was trying to do is this. I wanted to figure out whether there was a formula that would tell you when a particular economic or social goal could be implemented, could be achieved by some mechanism. Not all goals are achievable. And I wanted first to figure out which ones were achievable and which were not. And then second I wanted to be able to say well if this is achievable how can we find a mechanism which achieves it. Those were the two questions and I worked for years on them, mostly by looking at examples and trying to extract general principles. And then one night I was lying awake thinking about it and it really came to me almost as a flash. It’s the same sort of experience that many people have where you’ve subconsciously been thinking about something for a long time and then even when you’re not aware of it, the mind puts everything together and one beautiful complete picture emerges which shows how the pieces fit together. That I view as art, the mind is looking at all of these pieces and how it can put the pieces together to make something that’s beautiful. It’s not conscious or it’s not entirely conscious it’s going on at a level that you can’t fully analyze but in my view it’s ultimately an artistic exercise.

Steve Gotz: It’s magical when it happens.

Dr. Maskin: Yes, it is very satisfying. One of the most exciting moments in my life.

Steve Gotz: It is! I’m curious, is this is a common theme when you speak with other Nobel winners.

Dr. Maskin: Yes I think [it’s common] for people who’ve done theoretical work, which is what I do. It’s very common that you hit your head against the wall for a long period of time and then, often very quickly, it comes together. There is a wonderful story by Andy Wiles, the mathematician who solved Fermat’s Last Theorem. He tells about a serious flaw discovered in his first attempt to prove the Theorem. He was in a real bind at that point because he had gone public. Everyone knew that he had claimed to prove the theorem. And everyone knew there was a problem with the proof. And he spent a year trying to patch it up. He tried everything he could think of. He brought in an old student to think about it with him but he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. And just before he decided to give up, he thought he would have one last look. He sort of turned the page upside down and decide to look at it backwards. Then he had a flash of insight and he suddenly saw how the very problem that he had been having for the year could be solved just by turning things around. He said it was one of the most thrilling moments of his life.

Steve Gotz: I think this is a fascinating example because we live in a world where we want instant gratification. But sometimes the most important, the most impactful things don’t and can’t come instantaneously.

Dr. Maskin: Right, or they can’t come unless you’ve laid the groundwork so in the end Wiles’ inspiration was essentially instant. In my case it was that one evening when I couldn’t sleep and was thinking about [these pieces] when they came together. But that wouldn’t have happened, I’m almost certain, if we hadn’t been racking our brains for months or years; that laid the groundwork for a flash of inspiration which in the end solved the problem.

Steve Gotz: Wonderful. I have one last one last question. A few years ago you did an interview with McKinsey. In response to a question about AI and teaching computers to reason morally, you responded that “humans are instinctively moral beings and I don’t see machines as ever entirely replacing those instincts. Computers are powerful complements to moral reasoning not substitutes for it.” Following up on that observation, I’m curious how you think computers can complement human moral reasoning.

Dr. Maskin: Computers are great at turning very complex problems in to a sequence of very simple problems. If you give a human being a simple moral problem he or she can probably solve it instinctively because as I was suggesting we have these strong moral instincts. But suppose you embed this simple moral problem into a jungle of other moral problems which possibly conflict with one another. How do you see your way through the jungle? That’s where AI can come in to simplify the mess for us. Let me give an analogy with decision analysis. Imagine that you are a CEO of some company and you’re considering whether you want to make a particular investment and you don’t know what’s going to happen with the investment. There are lots of different possibilities. You can draw what’s called a decision tree where from your decision there are all of these possibilities and for each possibility there is a particular payoff that you might get, and there’s a probability of getting that payoff. Now once you have this really complicated decision tree you want to know whether you should make the investment or not. Well it’s too complicated to just look at the tree and know what you should do, but what you can do with decision analysis is to take this complicated tree and simplify it. And that’s what computers and AI can do for us. They can take these complicated decision trees and simplify them by breaking them down into their component parts.

Steve Gotz: Wonderful. Dr. Maskin, thank you so much for your time.

Dr. Maskin: Nice talking to you. A pleasure.

Reflections on the Interview

As I think back about my conversation with Dr. Maskin, I am struck that such a rational and scientific person credits much of his success to the pursuit of beauty. Multiple times during our conversation Dr. Maskin drew parallels between the pursuit of artistic beauty and scientific discovery. As he recounted the very moment when his decades of hard work crystallized in one split second of clarity, his voice grew energized as if recounting a spiritual experience.

When I observe the current state of Silicon Valley and the technology-driven world it represents, I can’t help but wonder whether we are missing something important. Perhaps we have made an unforced error by encouraging an entire generation of entrepreneurs to work within a mechanism that rewards success at any cost while fueling themselves with Red Bull and ramen under motivational mantras such as “move fast and break things” and “hustle harder.”

As Dr. Maskin posits, mechanisms are merely a way of achieving a goal. For the past two decades, that goal in Silicon Valley was to sustain the increased generation of “Unicorn” companies at the fastest pace possible through the disruption of incumbent industries. Not all goals, however, are achievable as Dr. Maskin would add. With the benefit of hindsight, some researchers are suggesting that the pursuit of unicorns, fueled by the low cost of capital and winner-take-all platform strategies is both unsustainable and perhaps misguided.Hence the mechanism that enables that goal is also misaligned, if not outright flawed.

So what could we replace the goal, and the enabling mechanism, with? I believe I gained inspiration towards a possible alternative from Dr. Maskin’s wise words. Specifically, I see a possibility for the pursuit of what I’d like to call “Strategic Beauty” that supplants the current paradigm, in the process making the world a fairer and more inclusive place.

What is Strategic Beauty? It is the beauty that’s seen in the creation of companies that consider their long-term societal impact with the same level of passion as they do the pursuit of profit. It is the beauty in diverse and inclusive teams that accomplish much more than would be possible by any individual member or monocultural “tribe.” It is working under the principle that our professional life is very much an act of creation and the companies we create, the products we build, and the teams we form should be “beautiful.”

Beautiful, because it satisfies us humans intrinsically, as Dr. Maskin says. Beautiful, because it’s the result of hard, meandering, and frustrating work to bring together many different pieces into a whole. Beautiful, because it’s built with great care and attention bound by a sense of responsibility. Beautiful, because it inspires others to pursue their own endeavors that satisfies other humans at the same fundamental level.

In more prosaic terms, Strategic Beauty is the optimal blend of capitalistic fervour, artistic pride, and collective benefit. Or looking at the mechanism itself, there is beauty when the trifecta of People (leaders, employees, investors), Problem, and Product come together to form a company that becomes a Platform upon which stakeholders can thrive for the long-term. A “beautiful machine,” if you may.

Furthermore, the journey of creating that beautiful machine is as fulfilling and rewarding, if not more than, the outcome. A true “going concern,” not an “endpoint,” and definitely not something to “exit.” Put this way, this makes great companies a work of enduring art. Yet unlike (most) art where the end product is “fixed” and “static” and merely a manifestation of one artist’s creativity, businesses can become vehicles that draw in and develop talent that can do even bigger, better, and more beautiful things. That is a noble undertaking.

You might be thinking at this point that I’m a hopeless romantic given the current reality of “Silicon Valley” and the world that’s being increasingly driven towards either a utopia (for some) or a dystopia (for many) by the technologies produced there. Yet despite that reality, I have hope. Every day I meet new founders, who don’t talk about growth hacking and engagement metrics but rather prioritize the pursuit of purpose and impact. When they accomplish what they boldly set out to do, I believe the world will be a very beautiful place. And I trust Dr. Maskin would find the enabling mechanisms to be equally beautiful in their own right.

About the Authors:

Steve Gotz is a Partner at Silicon Foundry, which works with some of the world’s leading corporations (AmorePacific, Barrick, British Petroleum, Deutsche Telekom, Majid Al Futtaim, SK Hynix, Standard Chartered Bank, UPS and the Royal Bank of Scotland) to create more impactful commercial structures and strategies to maintain and further enhance customer relevancy in the digital age.

Naotake Murayama has 20+ years of experience working with leading companies of the world and Silicon Valley startups. His expertise spans a multitude of industries and geographies in both strategic and operational roles working with entrepreneurs, C-level executives, boards, and investors. He’s currently involved with several projects to build enduring and impactful organizations.

Silicon Foundry is an innovation advisory platform that builds bridges between leading multi-national corporations and global startup ecosystems.