I am a low S trapped in a high S’s body.
S is for steadiness in the DISC personality-profiling system, outlined in 1928 by psychologist William Moulton Marston (also the creator of Wonder Woman). Assessing colleagues and customers according to their need for dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance is a skill still taught in many corporations. My outwardly high S means that if you ask me whether I would like to vacation in Italy or India, I will say Italy, because I’ve already been there, and I know what it’s like. If I were on Deal or No Deal with Howie Mandel, I’d choose the cash I knew I’d won over the next briefcase every time.
Yet in my secret heart I am a low S. The best things in my life have turned up by surprise. If I let my boyfriend plan our vacations, we end up in exotic places like Shanghai or Belize, and I have a great time. I love new things when I encounter them; I just can’t remember that beforehand.
So when I heard about the Hunch Engine, my reaction was predictably dismissive. I’d been assigned to write about the design and search tool for this special TR35 issue of Technology Review because it had just been unveiled as the latest brainchild of theoretical physicist Eric Bonabeau, whom the magazine had named four years earlier as one of our top young innovators (see “TR100/2002,” June 2002). In 2000, Bonabeau had founded a company called Icosystem to commercialize his ideas about the “swarm intelligence” that emerges from systems, such as ant colonies, whose individual parts are not themselves intelligent.
According to the company’s publicity materials, the Hunch Engine is software that uses evolutionary algorithms to breed solutions to science, engineering, business, or design problems–solutions that no human mind could have predicted. Icosystem claims that evolutionary algorithms expose ideas to a kind of natural selection, allowing users to “reach beyond the limits of their imagination.” But the notion that serendipity might produce better results than thinking and planning left me suspicious. That was before I heard about the French letter carriers.
In June, I spent an afternoon with Bonabeau at his company’s headquarters in Cambridge, MA. Bonabeau, who has degrees from Paris-Sud University, the École Polytechnique, and the École Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications and was a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, is a very low S–and an almost negligible C. Over tea, we talked about the menu at El Bulli, a notoriously experimental restaurant north of Barcelona where reservations must ordinarily be made a year in advance but where Bonabeau had, the week before, won a table after a relentless series of e-mails to the maître d’. It sounded like exactly the kind of place I would never try on my own but that I in fact enjoy.
Designing efficient mail-delivery routes, Bonabeau explained to me after our tea, is an age-old headache for post-office bureaucrats. The route that’s shortest in distance or fastest in time may be unfeasible for the most illogical of reasons, such as the belief among postal carriers that it’s inefficient for any two mail routes to cross. Or the mailman may simply dislike his new route. A large percentage of the mail-route reorganizations attempted by post offices around the world lead to labor-management tensions and strikes, Bonabeau says.