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Specialization is great yet it leads to local maxima in overall progress.

There are fields such as robotics where it is very hard to advance without knowledge in multiple domains such as mechanical engineering/electronics/biology/math/comp-sci/philosophy/psychology/matherial science/physics/chemistry and many other.

One would think that having a group of people who specialize in their own fields would give good results but this kind of specialization leads to simple facts being missed for 50 years such that some insects perform computations in mechanical systems which is becoming an essential idea in robotics. (see

Merging of ideas from different fields leads to rapid progress. The question becomes: to specialize or not to specialize to achieve the most progress?

  • Apr 29 2011: Not to specialize is not really a choice. A person with greater breadth and lesser depth of knowledge in multiple domains is a specialization of knowledge. Perhaps positions such as these need to be more well-defined to be recognized as a specialization.

    Someone who specializes in a single domain has a unique knowledge set which gives them the ability to push the envelope in creating. That knowledge set is specifically tailored to provide this ability.

    Someone who merges ideas from multiple domains also has a unique knowledge set which gives them the ability to push the envelope in creating.

    The difference may be hierarchical in scope, but each is progressive. Both types advance each other. I think the ability to merge ideas is challenging and powerful, requiring a good deal of analytical skill and creativity.
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    Jun 15 2011: I wonder if the problem is not specialization in itself, but a lack of synthesis from the varying specializations.

    Matt Ridley's talk about how growth occurs from exchange has me thinking that problems from specialization stem from where there is a lack of this exchange -- a sort of tunnel vision emerges. By exchanging information between specialized fields significant advances may be made, as Rand points out in the robotics example above.
  • Apr 29 2011: Specializing in a set of domains is a specialization, however if the set is infinite... it is not?

    I believe that our brain unifies the knowledge in terms of banging your head against the wall as I like to call it. To be exact: simple tactile/visual/auditory input. Theres is much evidence to it such as synestesia and plasticity. I would also think that abstract thinking involves same areas of the brain for different domains. It does not matter wether the concepts are complex or simple they can be used across domains.

    Said that, leads me to thinking that specialization does two things: helps one realize more patterns in a particular "paradigm" and be aware of more "paradigms". Going Breadth first and not depth first might create greater advances in the first. For example studying math might lead to better understanding of physics than studying physics or studying physics might lead to greater discoveries in astronomy than studying astronomy.

    Refering to Plato's forms, learning about everything reveals the forms and specialization leads to knowing the shadows because you don't have the forms to express the shadows in terms of.