Complexity without conscious design

There was a terrific documentary on the BBC last night, and happily it’s also on YouTube for anyone to enjoy: The Secret Life of Chaos.

I particularly enjoyed the last ten minutes or so. It describes how the principles of evolution and self-organisation are being applied to computers.

It’s very hard to explain, so please watch the video. But here’s my stumbling attempt to summarise it:

A company called Natural Motion sets up computers to use the principles of evolution to shape and refine their own programs – in the way the natural world uses those principles to shape and refine living organisms.

The computers are, in effect, given little animated humans and tasked with trying to get them to move elegantly. They start with “a hundred random virtual brains” to control the figures, which stumble around pretty helplessly. The algorithm then selects the slightly less clumsy of the brains, and allows them to create offspring. After a few iterations, these new virtual brains can get the figures to walk… and with more iteration, ever more lifelike motion is possible.

Again, watch the video, I found it breathtaking.

The guy behind all this says of the successful animations, that it works but you don’t know how it works. “You create these algorithms but then they do their own thing.”

As the narrator says, from simple rules and feedback, complexity spontaneously emerges, without any conscious thought.

Design doesn’t need an active, interfering designer, it’s an inherent part of the universe.

I think there’s something profound about this that is missing from most of what is said about creativity and innovation in organisations – which seems preoccupied with the need for management, control and interference.

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