Sunday, April 17, 2011

Research, Engineering and Novelty

It is possible to distill the research process into these steps:

  • Immerse yourself in a domain
  • Grok it till you can spot holes in it
  • Find an idea that covers one of these holes 
  • Show the novelty of that idea by the fact that it fills a hole or covers some aspect of the domain that wasn't covered before.
  • Prove the idea either formally using theorems and lemmas or present data that supports the it with some level of certainty
If you need to build a system to prove the idea, it is a disposable, one shot system, that solves the given problem and its set of users is the researcher / research team.

The grand finale of the research process is when it is dumped out as a research paper that is accepted to a journal or presented in a conference.

Engineering is somewhat different.

The engineering process is initiated when there's a need to solve a problem - which is done by constructing and materializing a solution (which does not have to be a novel one).
This usually involves a development process. The solution's novelty can be further protected as a patent.

In this process, a bulletproof and robust solution is the holy grail.
A successful system is one that:
  • Solves the given problem
  • Provides maximal output with minimal resources 
  • Can be used by many users (not just by the solution/system developers) 
The grand finale of an engineering process is a satisfied user (this can be someone crossing a bridge, a pilot flying an aircraft or a gamer playing in a virtual world).

I was, am and will be involved in both of these processes, so all I can say is that the understanding in which process you are is far more important then the kind of process you participate in.

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