Dr John Maxwell Cohn, IBM Fellow in the MIT-IBM Watson AI Research Group, shared his perspective about how innovation, fun and passion can come hand in hand in the workplace during a DSTA Lecture on 15 August 2019.

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Dr Cohn is the lead IBM scientist driving a first-of-its-kind collaborative industrial-academic laboratory, founded with the goal of charting the future of artificial intelligence (AI). However, he may be better known to many as the engineer scientist in the Discovery Channel reality TV show ‘The Colony’, where he and other cast members had to survive in an environment that simulated life after the collapse of civilisation due to a catastrophic epidemic.

During his lecture entitled ‘Serious Play: An Engineer’s Perspective on Fun and Passion at Work’, Dr Cohn invited staff to rethink how a playful outlook can complement one’s work to achieve a successful career in engineering.

In line with his motto of keeping things playful and bringing a playful spirit into work, he explained that play keeps us satisfied, engaged and productive at work.

For example, his passion for making things has seen him work on various side projects, including creating a 30-foot keyboard for a rock band and a vehicle resembling a ferris wheel for carrying passengers across the desert, among others. These side projects made him realise that he enjoyed sharing his love for creating things with others, and in turn made him more energised about his profession.

Dr Cohn, who has more than 100 patents under his portfolio, also discussed how play can help drive innovation. For instance, some of his patents have been incorporated into gaming products such as Microsoft’s XBOX gaming console.

Besides improving one’s work life, Dr Cohn believes that play is also crucial for attracting and retaining the next generation. Recognising that some may be unfamiliar and hence distrustful of new technologies such as AI, he has created engaging products to spark conversation and dispel fear of those technologies. One such product was a browser-based instrument that leverages AI to allow people to make music just by waving their arms.

He also elaborated how his passion for play has taken him from corporate boardrooms to schools around the world, and even to TV. For example, he spent two and a half months on the set of ‘The Colony’, where he invented tools for survival by leveraging his engineering expertise and knowledge of science.

While he acknowledged that it can be easy to lose touch with our playful sides amid life’s stressors, he emphasised the importance of always making time for play.