Bonabeau is careful to emphasize that evolutionary algorithms are nothing new. Computer scientists have been experimenting with them since the 1980s, and Icosystem has been selling industrial design tools based on them for several years. One tool, for example, helps pharmaceutical researchers breed biological molecules that are likely to interact favorably with receptors in the body.
What’s new is the use of evolutionary algorithms in programs that laypeople might use to invent things. A simple demonstration on Icosystems’ website, for instance, asks a user to select a few initial designs for Mondrianesque wallpaper or bathroom tiles; the designs’ evolution can then be directed toward the pattern the user likes best. The first standalone commercial service based on the Hunch Engine will debut this fall, when Icosystems launches an online company-naming service. Bonabeau says that for $15 or so, the naming engine will let a user recombine random phonemes and filter the resulting names until something pleasing, inoffensive, and non-trademarked emerges.
I’d been intrigued by the mailman story, but here I balked. The idea that a beautiful name might emerge from a mindless program offended me. Surely, I told Bonabeau, the quality of the solutions the Hunch Engine can generate must be limited by the quality of the real-world rules programmers are able to write into their software. These rules, I argued, must often be too numerous or subtle to capture. What kind of world would it be, I asked, if we let chance and mindless algorithms substitute for human creativity?
It was, of course, my outer high S speaking: I want to know where we’re going and how we’re getting there. But as usual, I was cutting myself off from exciting possibilities.
There’s no need to capture all the rules, Bonabeau replied. “Your question is really about the design space,” he said. “How can you make sure it’s rich enough that you’ll have a chance of finding something interesting? Well, there are cases where the design space is well defined. A good example is cooking, where, with five ingredients and five ways of combining them, I can already create more dishes than you can count. In those cases the Hunch Engine helps you navigate the design space. You can never be sure you’re exploring the space in an exhaustive manner. But you’re navigating it in a way that is a lot smarter than a random walk and a lot more empowering than being forced into a solution.”
Left on my own, Bonabeau might as well have been telling me, I tend to putter in one corner of my life’s design space. I am afraid to trade the route I know for the new one that’s probably better. But the Hunch Engine may give us inner low Ss a taste of the wider possibilities–and a reminder that in the end, life will find its own way.
Wade Roush is a senior writer at Technology Review.
The Hunch Engine