In Praise of Serendipity

Creating Value in Robotics...Unexpectedly

Article Index as serendipity engine: In an algorithm-driven world a little bit of the unexpected goes a long way in refreshing our zest for discovery

“As their highnesses of Serendip* travelled, they were always making discoveries,
by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” —Horace Walpole (1754)

We created the Article Index for our readers
We get lots of emails in praise of and in thanks for our Article Index, which partly explains why it is one of the most trafficked sections on the website. 

People like to browse lists where unexpected encounters can spark something in them that is new and out of the ordinary, something different from the things that they usually encounter.

Maria Konnikova’s New Yorker piece A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists throws some light on the reason: “On a physical level, the answer is often simple: difference. Whenever we’re scanning the environment for nothing in particular, our visual system is arrested by the things that don’t fit—features that suddenly change or somehow stand out from the background.”

Our Article Index is an intriguing list of things that stand out from the background and that are purposefully arranged for comfortable browsing and, hopefully, discovery.

Konnikova goes on to say that research has shown that when going through these lists “people preferred headlines that were both creative and uninformative, like “the smell of corruption, the scent of truth” or “face to faith.”

They not only rated them as more interesting over-all but also indicated that they would be more likely to read the corresponding stories.”

Wow, where’s the SEO in that? Nowhere, thankfully.

It’s the kind of stuff Ernst Cassirer wrote about years ago in The Power of Metaphor.

What we hope that takes place as our readers’ browse the Article Index are many refreshing encounters with serendipity.

Nurturing serendipity
We need to thank Horace Walpole for coining the word for what comes naturally to humans and what we spend lots of time doing: serendipity.

Most dictionaries explain serendipity as the occurrence and discovery of events or things or people by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

It’s an activity humans have been carrying on for millennia or longer, but for which we waited, as The Paris Review puts it, until January 28, 1754, when Walpole invented the word in a letter to a friend. He explained that he formed the noun from the title of the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip * (the Persian-Arabic name for Sri Lanka). The heroes of the fairy tale “were always making accidental discoveries”.

It would take nearly two centuries more before its first recorded usage in 1943.

It’s the exact opposite of how algorithm-driven search engines in our age of exactitude want humans to spend their time, especially in the workplace.

Serendipity matters

Fortunately, many companies are enlightened when it comes to the benefits of serendipity on their employees. As Rachael Silverman writes in The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace: “Companies aren’t leaving serendipity to chance. Firms are thinking up new ways to encourage interactions among employees who normally don’t work with each other.” 


Google and Pixar (hotbeds of innovation), she says, actively promote serendipity; one, National Public Radio, has structured Serendipity Days in which “about 50 employees from different departments, including digital, engineering, HR and news, volunteer to come together and think of new ideas and projects over a two-day period.”

These companies know “how important unexpected encounters and knowledge exchange are for innovation,” adds 
The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0.

Walpole himself was serendipitous in the extreme. Part of coining the word must have been a quest to put a name to his own deep-dive journeys into the unexpected nature of discovery. He is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing no fewer than 200 words into the English language, among them beefy, malaria, nuance, somber, and souvenir. That’s a lot of pre-Google search activity.

My favorite excursion into the realms of serendipity is the home library of the American poet Carl Sandburg. He had over 20,000 books lining the walls and stuffed into nearly every nook and cranny in his home. Amazingly, the collection had no rational arrangement. It wasn’t alpha ordered by author or title or by theme or seemingly by any other convention. 


Mr. Chang's News Emporium, Kowloon

After Sandburg’s death in 1967, his widow Lillian (he called her Paula) explained to a journalist’s query about the collection that it was purposely unorganized. Her husband liked the sense of discovery—the serendipitous encounters made while reaching for a specific book that another nearby book might spark. Those things discovered of which he was “not in quest of.”

Serendipity is the reason for our Article Index here at Asian Robotics Review. It’s the kind of physical space where visitors can encounter something that they didn’t think they were interested in until they actually stumbled upon it.

We’re thrilled with its popularity, which is well beyond our expectations. Thousands of visitors have now trekked through the article headlines and sub-heads that cover our two years of existence (2017-2018).

Month by month, readers can follow news, analysis and research on the great themes and events taking place in robotics and automation, the relentless building out of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as it happens.

Going from headline to headline, month by month, is the fertile ground where we hope that serendipity flourishes for every visitor. And like the highnesses of Serendip, our readers are making discoveries, “by accident and sagacity”, of things which they were not in quest of. That’s so cool!

Thanks for sharing some of those adventures with us. We intend to bring you many more in the months to come.

Thanks for your continued interest, loyalty and frequent trips to Asian Robotics Review. We appreciate every time you click at our front door.

With great respect and appreciation,

Tom Green
Founder & Publisher

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