July 15, 2006

BLACK BOXED IN:

Technology Design or Evolution?: The two processes for building complex systems are fundamentally different. (Steve Jurvetson, 7/11/06, Technology Review)

Designed systems offer predictability, efficiency, and control. Their subsystems are easily understood, which allows their reuse in different contexts. But designed systems also tend to break easily, and they have conquered only simple problems so far. Compare, for example, Microsoft code and biological code: Word is larger than the human genome.

By contrast, evolved systems demonstrate that simple, iterative algorithms, distributed over time and space, can accumulate design and create complexity that is robust, resilient, and well adapted to its environment. In fact, biological evolution provides the only "existence proof" that an algorithm can produce complexity transcending that of its antecedents. Biological evolution is so inspiring that engineers have mimicked its operations in areas such as genetic programming, artificial life, and the iterative training of neural networks.

But evolved systems have their disadvantages. For one, they suffer from "subsystem inscrutability." That is, when we direct the evolution of a system, we may know how the evolutionary process works, but we will not necessarily understand how the resulting system works internally. For example, when the computer scientist Danny Hillis evolved a simple sort algorithm, the process produced inscrutable and mysterious code that did a good job at sorting numbers. But had he taken the time to reverse-engineer his system, the effort would not have provided much generalized insight into evolved artifacts.

Why is this? Stephen Wolfram's theory of computational equivalence suggests that simple, formulaic shortcuts for understanding evolution may never be discovered. We can only run the iterative algorithm forward to see the results, and the various computational steps cannot be skipped.

Thus, if we evolve a complex system, it is a black box defined by its interfaces. We cannot easily apply our design intuition to the improvement of its inner workings. We can't even partition its subsystems without a serious effort at reverse-engineering. And until we can understand the interfaces between partitions, we can't hope to transfer a subsystem from one evolved complex system to another.


These poor guys have themselves so far down the dead end they have to pretend there's a fundamental difference between kinds of intelligent design.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 15, 2006 12:59 PM
Comments

Mr. Judd;

I see that your grasp of complex system design is exceeded only by your understanding of evolutionary theory.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 15, 2006 1:24 PM

design

Posted by: oj at July 15, 2006 1:33 PM

AOG/OJ -

You may be interested in reading a learned critique of this essay at:

http://www.idthefuture.com/2006/07/software_architect_examines_ju.html#more

I was written by a Microsoft software Architect. It would be reasonable to assume he knows his stuff. Off topic, but Wolfram's Theory of Computational Equivalence still rankles me; several people have noted it seems to be Turing's Halting problem in a new guise.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at July 15, 2006 1:40 PM

Heh. I meant to say "It was written, but maybe it's more truthful the way I originally wrote it!

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at July 15, 2006 1:50 PM

Yes, computer systems designed by humans are human-designed computer systems. Lots of people make very good livings arguing over which methods are best, and coders waste many hours learning the latest fads. Also it helps to have a catchy name for your method. Your point was?

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 15, 2006 1:56 PM

Bruce:

Don't upset AOG, he thought the essay profound.

Posted by: oj at July 15, 2006 1:57 PM

joe:

You made it: "...systems designed...are...designed...systems"

Posted by: oj at July 15, 2006 2:03 PM

Mr. Judd - here is my research: http://www.bscb.cornell.edu/~bustamante/node9.html

Any questions?

Posted by: Bustamante at July 16, 2006 1:25 AM

Sure. "[I]f we evolve a complex system" how is it not a product of intelligent design?

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2006 1:42 AM

So, one one hand, here and elsewhere, you are calling the research of evolutionary biologists ridiculous, and on the other you are trying to claim whatever gains we make under the rubric of your own definition intelligent design?
Granted, some of what passes as legimitimate research seems laughable to some of us, but I feel it is far too bold of you to dismiss the whole multitude of forms that I and thousands of others have come to try to understand the processes of evolution.
But, alas, we are speaking a different language. You only want to be able to say that you're right, and we only want to do the kind of research that will save your children's lives. God Bless You.

Posted by: Bustamante at July 16, 2006 2:37 AM

To the contrary, much research is quite useful precisely because evolution is a truism (medical research for example). It is Darwinism that is bogus and completely useless to researchers:

www.brothersjudd.com/blog/archives/2005/09/that_ones_gonna.html


Y'all have done nothing to advance the understanding of the process, but you can do good by looking at the effects.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2006 7:12 AM

Mr. Judd;

AOG, he thought the essay profound
Only compared to your commentary.

Mr. Cleaver;

On the contrary, having had extensive and detailed experience with Microsoft software, I would never make that assumption. The Dark Empire was successful because of its superior business acumem, never because of superior technology. That's not to say that there hasn't been some very clever, very well thought out software produced by Microsoft, but it's the exception, not the rule.

In fact, while I wouldn't mock the article, I found it less interesting than the original with less insight in to actual design.

For background, my doctoral work was on meta-design, how to build systems that would support software design and implementation. I built a working prototype as part of the work, so that I could speak authoritatively at my defense about what it takes to actually build a complex system.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 16, 2006 11:21 AM

For background, my doctoral work was on meta-design, how to build systems that would support software design and implementation. I built a working prototype as part of the work, so that I could speak authoritatively at my defense about what it takes to actually build a complex system.

Except that systems aren't complex to the Designer, only from within the system.

Nice hubris though. You ought to try Darwinism instead of just computer science...assuming there's a difference...

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2006 11:29 AM

Mr. Judd;

You're doing a bait and switch again. In the context of the original article, "complex system" has a specific meaning, which is how I used it. You redefined the term and then accuse me of hubris based on that redefinition. That's the sign that my work here is done.

P.S. It seems odd to accuse me of hubris for claiming to know too much, and then suggest that I should claim to know even more.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at July 16, 2006 2:45 PM

Ah, but to be a Darwinist you'd only need to "know" what you think you know now. That's the point of the story.

It's not surprising you don't understand because if you did you'd not pretend to belief in Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at July 16, 2006 3:42 PM
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