Curious About Curiosity UnboundedBish Sanyal
I was intrigued by the theme “Curiosity Unbounded” for President Sally Kornbluth’s inauguration, a theme she continued in her podcasts with recently tenured faculty at MIT (https://president.mit.edu/podcasts). At first hearing, the theme of curiosity sounds straightforward and evokes a positive note, an upbeat intellectual umbrella for all the decentralized research and teaching initiatives at MIT. After all, who could object to the celebration of curiosity, which is essential for learning. But, as I thought about the topic, I was intrigued by the second word of the theme – “Unbounded” – and asked myself: What binds curiosity; and what, if anything, should MIT do to unbind it?
I realize that the students who are admitted to MIT are generally curious and hard-working. So, how to unbind their curiosity further may not be high on the agenda, compared to, say, how they may use artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced computing to address burning issues of our times, such as global warming and climate change. Yet, at the learning community we call MIT, one key objective must be to understand how to enhance learning capabilities; and towards that end we must be curious about curiosity, particularly how to unbind it. A second timely concern is: Are there historical moments when curiosity should be bounded by ethical and moral concerns, as some prominent proponents of AI have recently started to advocate? President Kornbluth has opened the organizational door for that deliberation to flourish. What follows are a few initial thoughts as I pondered President Kornbluth’s call for curiosity unbounded.
There was a time, during the peak of the Cold War in the 1950s, when it was widely acknowledged that Western democratic nations that provide and protect freedom of intellectual imagination and of expression were ideal settings for curiosity to flourish. The incredible pace of scientific research and innovations of all kinds in the US and Western Europe during that time demonstrated how democracies that cherish freedom of thought and expression were better than Communist nations, like the old USSR, in creating vibrant learning environments which generated continuous new insights, not only in science and engineering, but in other disciplines and vocations as well. That unbridled optimism had one kink, however: the then USSR’s surprising success in the operation of Sputnik alarmed many; but that technological success by a Communist nation was viewed as an exception rather than the norm of research excellence in Communist nations. Yet Sputnik did spur a national conversation in the US regarding how to win the “space race”; and there were calls for renewed emphasis on education that would produce a continuous stream of scientists and engineers.
Sputnik’s success also raised questions within the US scientific community regarding the appropriate role of government in scientific research, because it demonstrated how large-scale targeted governmental spending for knowledge generation may succeed even in Communist nations: an observation that has reemerged recently as we witness China’s success in catching up, technologically, with Western nations. One wonders whether authoritarian political systems can “demand” curiosity of handpicked scientists and force technological innovations by directing large-scale public resources towards research priorities set, not by scientific curiosity, but by national interests as decided by authoritarian governments.
The relationships among scientific curiosity, technological innovations, and the nature of political systems have, however, never been quite as straightforward as it seems at first hearing. As far back as the 1930s, when the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was created, there has been a strong strand of thinking among scientists which valorized curiosity over innovation.
As Abraham Flexner, the first Director of the Institute of Advanced Study, wrote in the short book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2017), the freedom to inquire and imagine should not be “bounded” by the need for innovations to solve societal problems.
Even with the growing call for innovations to “solve” all sorts of problems in recent years, the old concern that basic research should be driven more by unbounded curiosity than by profit making has not yet become obsolete. On the contrary, there remain many advocates for curiosity-driven “basic research” until today. As Professor Susan S. Silbey, Chair of the MIT Faculty from 2019 to 2020 reminded us, there is a danger of structuring education to “disrupt” the usual process of knowledge generation to invent game changing innovations. In that mode of thinking what binds curiosity is the urge to disrupt with “radical innovations,” the sort of innovations which can yield stunning returns on investments. This motivation for quick and large financial return which drive many private firms that fund scientific research is viewed as utilitarian in nature, while scientific curiosity is viewed as a natural habit of mind not constrained by utilitarian goals.
These dual motivations of research are sometimes portrayed as a key difference between basic and applied research, but the truth is that basic and applied research are rarely two totally separate activities: they are usually interconnected, but the pathway of interconnection is neither unidirectional nor clear-cut. What is evident, however, is that governmental support for basic research has declined in the US over the years, as was documented carefully in a report by MIT titled, “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit” (April, 2015) . Is this the kind of concern implicit in President Kornbluth’s call for curiosity to be unbounded? Another related question, is even though we agree with President Kornbluth’s explicit call that the MIT community should focus on the problems of global warming and climate change, how will that problem-driven approach to knowledge generation affect cultivation of curiosity of the kind Flexner advocated in celebrating the use of “useless knowledge?”
A second set of questions regarding unbinding curiosity emerges from President Kornbluth’s interesting podcasts with MIT faculty. I listened to the podcasts to understand how and when did our colleagues become curious researchers. Were they born with the natural inclination toward curiosity, or did they become curious later due to force of circumstances? One would think that curiosity is best cultivated in an open-ended learning process in which both parents and schoolteachers must have played crucial roles.
I come from an educational culture in India where, in general, performance in exams is given higher priority than whether or not a student is curious; and I wonder whether I would have been more curious in my early years if I were educated in the US style of teaching in primary and secondary schools. I also ask myself when and how I became interested in Architecture and Urban Planning. Was I naturally drawn to aesthetics, good design, and urbanism, or did force of circumstances lead me in that direction, evoking my curiosity as I grappled to learn the vocabulary of architectural design?
President Kornbluth’s podcasts with MIT faculty suggest that an individual need be observant of patterns, such as in the podcast where Professor Desiree Plata noticed that many families in her grandparents’ town were sick. Even at a rather early age she had hypothesized, intuitively, that there must be something wrong with either the water, air, or food in the neighborhood where her grandparents lived. Her observation raised the question of whether the origin of her curiosity was the concern for the health of her grandparents, or rather some innate quality of mind she was born with to be inquisitive, which would have flourished naturally over time, even if her grandparents lived in a healthier neighborhood. I raise this question because I think the notion of curiosity, as commonly understood, assumes that an independent mind and a free will are necessary for curiosity to flourish; but in real life one can become curious as one is boxed in an unforeseen situation, trying to make the best of the circumstances by acknowledging the constraints.
Perhaps it is too stark to pose the question in such a dualistic way; that curiosity is evoked or curbed differently in different individuals with different life experiences. We do not have a clear understanding of a generalizable process; that is why there are many “theories” about how parents of newborn children can make them curious. I raise this point to highlight the relationship between constraints and curiosity which intrigues me. In designing a building or planning a city one must first consider the constraints which define the boundaries within which a solution must be crafted. Thus, one becomes curious about how others have dealt with such constraints. Even though the proverbial ability “to think outside the box” is often considered necessary for creativity to flourish, it seems to me that creativity is the ability to think within the box by acknowledging constraints, while finding new ways to deal with them. This may seem obvious to engineers who are trained to optimize within constraints. Acknowledging constraints that define the space within which a solution must be found seems to be a more pragmatic way to think about curiosity than the way it is described in popular discourse.
A third issue that was evoked by President Kornbluth’s call for curiosity unbounded is what scholars of technological change are currently grappling with: whether research on AI needs to be “curbed” somewhat so that we do not end up with a situation where AI dictates decision-making that may eventually harm the human race. I realize that this fear of new technologies is not a new phenomenon. Starting with the Industrial Revolution there have been many critics of technologies who predicted adverse outcomes of new technologies. The opposite tendency of unbridled optimism for technological progress is also not new, however, as our late colleague Professor Leo Marx cautioned us (Marx, 1999). This simultaneous anxiety and euphoria raises moral and ethical questions about technological curiosity as captured vividly in the recent movie about Robert Oppenheimer. Would we as a human race be safer today if Oppenheimer’s curiosity was “bounded” by public concerns that the atom bomb would eventually lead to nuclear war, or are such concerns likely to lead to restrictions on scientific curiosity by public policies which may take us down the slippery slope of governmental command and control curbing the basic human instinct to probe the unknown?
I realize that the MIT community has already started deliberating such questions, and MIT’s formal position on this issue will be watched worldwide, simply because of our global reputation as a leading hub of technological innovations. The recent book, Power and Progress (2023) by two MIT professors, Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, reminds us that any deliberation on technological progress should take into account “the political economy” of technological innovations. Endorsing this book, Professor Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018) wrote: “. . . technology only contributes to shared prosperity when it is tamed by democratic rights, values, principles and the laws that sustain them in our lives.” This is not a new insight; similar concerns had led MIT’s President Jerome B. Wiesner, (1971-1980), to create MIT’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society. Perhaps it is time to reexamine that history as we try to understand, now, how to unbind scientific curiosity amidst deep ideological differences and growing power imbalances, not only in the US but in the world in general.
Finally, as an educational institution, we would remiss if President Kornbluth’s call for curiosity unbounded is confined only to research. Should we not inquire what kind of teaching frees curiosity and, conversely, which teaching style hurts its flourishing?
You may recall that a decade or so ago MIT had signed a contract with Cambridge University in England to have undergraduate student exchanges. A key assumption underpinning this contract was that learning environments at Cambridge University and MIT were somewhat different even though both institutions nurtured excellence. The British government, which had paid for this exchange program, had hoped that students from Cambridge University would become more technologically innovative and entrepreneurial by their experience at MIT; while we at MIT had hoped that our students would become more well-rounded intellectually by being exposed to the long tradition of excellent scholarship in wide ranging fields of knowledge at Cambridge University. I taught students from Cambridge University in a course at MIT on technological innovations to enhance the quality of life of poor households. I had asked the Cambridge University students whether they found the teaching style at MIT different from what they were used to at home. The visiting students were unanimous that the teaching style at MIT was more participatory, that students and faculty have more exchanges in the classroom; but they did complain about heavier workloads at MIT in terms of course requirements.
The MIT-Cambridge University exchange experience was never formally evaluated to assess the validity of our initial expectations, but as I participated in a few meetings with faculty from both sides, I was struck by how many assumptions shaped our thinking about what kind of learning experience enhances curiosity, rigorous thinking, entrepreneurial attitude, and so on. President Kornbluth’s recent call for curiosity unbounded brought back those memories, and I wonder if it may be useful to initiate a campus-wide deliberation on how to nurture curiosity in an educational environment marked by high levels of stress, still a common MIT student complaint. Again, this too is not a new concern because MIT has made efforts in the past to enhance the teaching capabilities of faculty, particularly by incorporating new educational technologies. The MacVicar Program was created by President Charles Vest in 1991 to reward faculty with excellence in teaching undergraduate courses. As a past recipient of this award, I have served on the committee to select new awardees, and have reviewed many letters of endorsement. The letters by faculty colleagues usually highlight how popular are the courses, how large are the course enrollments, and how highly conscientious are the faculty nominated for the MacVicar award.
The students who write supporting letters usually mention the clarity of lectures, the high level of attention they had received from the faculty despite the large class sizes, and, occasionally, they do mention how enrolling in a certain course changed their career trajectories. The faculty’s ability to cultivate curiosity is not mentioned very frequently, however, though it may be implicit in other comments regarding teaching styles. Perhaps it is the appropriate moment to have in-depth conversations about what style of teaching cultivates curiosity and, conversely, what diminishes it. That may be one way to build on President Kornbluth’s aspiration to make MIT a learning community where curiosity is unbounded.
 A. Flexner with a companion essay by R. Dijkgraaf, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, 2017,
Princeton University Press.
 Susan S. Silbey, “The Fundamental Challenge Facing Higher Education Today,” MIT Faculty Newsletter,
Vol. XXX, No.1, September/October, 2017.
 Marc Kastner et. al, The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit, MIT, April 2015.
 L. Marx, “Information Technology in Historical Perspective,” in High Technology and Low-Income Communities, (eds.) D. A. Schon, B. Sanyal, W.J. Mitchell, MIT Press, 1999, pp 131-150.
 D. Acemoglu and S. Johnson, Power and Progress, 2023, Public Affairs, NY.
 W. A. Rosenblith (ed.) Jerry Wiesner: Scientist, Statesman, Humanist, 2003, MIT Press.