Evolutionary design crossbreeds two innovation styles

January 26, 2008

Here’s an intriguing mix of conceptual and experimental innovation: evolutionary design.

The concept is to use a computerized trial-and-error method that mimicks the evolutionary process and eventually produces successful innovations. Because computers are so much faster than in the past, this method has now been used for designing cars, aircraft, USB memory sticks, yachts, optical fibers, ear implants, a cancer-detecting device, and a Wi-Fi antenna.

An article in The Economist (online in October, in print in December 2007) describes the process:

Evolutionary design uses a computer program called an evolutionary algorithm, which takes the initial parameters of the design (things such as lengths, areas, volumes, currents and voltages) and treats each like one gene in an organism. Collectively, these genes comprise the product’s genome. By randomly mutating these genes and then breeding them with other, similarly mutated genomes, new offspring designs are created. These are subjected to simulated use by a second program. If a particular offspring is shown not to be up to the task, it is discarded. If it is promising, it is selectively bred with other fit offspring to see if the results, when subject to further mutation, can do even better.

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Aging innovators know it: Amazing ideas aren’t the only way to go

January 21, 2008

Elizabeth HazenThe ability to come up with brilliant new ideas tends to decline with age, but that’s no problem for people whose innovations aren’t dependent on brilliant ideas.

They’re innovators who are experimental, rather than conceptual. For them, aging isn’t such a handicap, since they typically improve with experience. But they do face a particular problem of their own:

People tend to forget that they exist.

Despite the examples of middle-aged and older experimental innovators from Henry Ford to Sam Walton, experimental innovators are often overlooked when thinkers theorize about innovation.

A recent example this pervasive forgetfulness is Janet Rae-Dupress’s piece “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike” that the New York Times published Dec. 30.

Read the rest of this entry »


People’s favorites — Gates, Hazen, cummings

July 9, 2007

Elizabeth HazenAmong the dozens of artists, writers, film makers and inventors whose stories are told on the “Arts of Innovation” Web site, the most popular among Internet searcher are a software mogul, a microbiologist and a poet: (1) Bill Gates, (2) Elizabeth Hazen (pictured) and (3) e e cummings.

The most popular pages are:

The quiz “Are you experimental or conceptual?”;

• The preliminary, still-incomplete discussion of experimental and conceptual film makers;

• The presentation of the basics of experimental and conceptual innovators; and

• The page on e e cummings.


Grace Murray Hopper, middle-aged seeker

July 9, 2007

New from the “Arts of Innovation” Web site:

The year was 1953. The United States and the Soviet Union had each developed a hydrogen bomb. Jonas Salk had created a polio vaccine. Francis Crick and James Watson had discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. General Motors introduced the Corvette. hopper mid2 Red Sox baseball star Ted Williams was a fighter pilot in Korea, while U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy campaigned against communist symphathizers. Computers were as big as a room.

It was also the year when 47-year-old experimental innovator Grace Murray Hopper pieced together a new type of computer program — the compiler.

It was the culmination of 10 years of work in the emerging field of computers. That began for Hopper during World War II, at age 37, when she left a position teaching math at Vassar to join the Navy. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard, where she would work on one of the country’s first computers, the Mark I. It was fifty-one feet long.

She learned how to program it and soon wrote a computer operations manual, based on her work with the Mark 1. By the war’s end, she had moved on to the Mark II model and then became a research fellow at Harvard.

In rhopper mid02etrospect, her invention of the compiler was a breakthrough into a new type of program, which translates English-language commands into code that the computer can understand. But the process of creating the compiler was piecemeal, not based on a sudden inspiration. Hopper created the compiler to consolidate and automate a variety of subroutines for different programming tasks that she had jotted down on pieces of paper.

Her motivation, she said, was laziness. She also hoped that, with the compiler, “the programmer may return to being a mathematician.”

Her work, says one tech-savvy biographer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center: “embodied or foreshadowed enormous numbers of developments that are now the bones of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, and even symbolic manipulation of the kind embodied in Mathematica and Maple.”

Her invention of the compiler depended on her decades of experience in math and computers, but it wasn’t her last noteworthy achievement.

In her 50s, she helped invent the COBOL computer language. Like the compiler, It turns English-language commands into code that a computer can understand. COBOL was the first computer language for businesses and is still in use today.


35 technologies that shaped the computer industry

July 2, 2007

Computer with GUI interfaceComputerWorld magazine published a valuable list of 35 breakthrough computer technologies a few years ago.

It covers 1967 to the 1990s, ranging from the early stages in the invention of D-RAM in 1967 by Robert Dennard at IBM to the 1995 development of storage area networks by EMC Corp. , plus various uncredited inventions.

The list is interesting in its own right, but should also be helpful as a starting place for explorations of how technological innovations occur, either by individuals or corporate teams.

For starters, here are inventors’ ages, which I’ve added to items in the ComputerWorld list. Several seem to fit the mold of young computer geniuses:

  • In his mid-20s, “Ethernet (was) developed in the early 1970s by Bob Metcalfe at Xerox PARC.”
  • At ages 27 and 29, “In 1978, Harvard Business School students Dan Bricklin and Robert Frankston were tired of dealing with numbers on paper and the inevitable erasures. To simplify their homework, using the then-new Apple II computer, they came up with VisiCalc, a self-calculating, interactive ledger-sheet program.”

Also these conceptual breakthroughs:

  • At age 34, “Ray Ozzie’s 1989 vision of (Lotus Notes) document-based collaborative software combined group messaging, online discussion, group calendars, phone books, document databases, forms and workflow with a powerful development environment.”
  • At age 34, ” In 1966, IBM’s Robert Dennard found a way to store a memory bit as a charge on a capacitor in a single-transistor cell.” (It was a conceptual breakthrough, as this brief account makes clear: “Dennard and his team were working on early field-effect transistors and integrated circuits, and his attention to memory chips came from seeing another team’s research with thin-flim magnetic memory. Dennard claims he went home and within a few hours had gotten the basic ideas for the creation of DRAM.”

Are these old inventors more experimental in their approach?

  • At age 42 when the Osborne computer was launched, “Adam Osborne created the first ‘portable’ computer, introduced in 1981 at 24 lbs. with a 5-in. screen.”
  • At age 46, “IBM researcher Ted Codd defined the relational model for databases in 1969. Based on that concept and its query language, Oracle Corp. shipped the first SQL relational database system in 1979.”

Benjamin Franklin as role model for aging conceptual innovators

June 26, 2007

New from the Arts of Innovation Web site:

Benjamin FranklinBenjamin Franklin is the most prominent American inventor whose major successes came in middle age and later.

He’s remarkable not only because of his age, but also because of his style of innovation, which creates a double contrast.

First, he’s different from the many conceptually innovative inventors who achieve their greatest successes at a young age.

Second, he stands out from experimental innovators, who tend to achieve their greatest successes later in life, like Franklin, but whose approach differs from his.

Typically, successes come from older innovators who take a step-by-step experimental approach, such as Paul Cezanne, Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Murray Hopper and Elizabeth Hazen. That’s not what Franklin did.

His approach is conceptual, with sudden breakthrough ideas coming one after another. That’s a rarity even among young geniuses.

How did he do it? He was an exceptional man, needless to say. But in addition, without knowing it (of course) he followed this Web site’s advice, as outlined in “Tips for conceptual innovators.”

That advice was to keep changing focus. In each new field, he was a newcomer, which enabled him to make conceptual breakthroughs:

* He was 35 when he unveiled the Franklin Stove.
* He developed the lightning rod at age 44.
* He experimented with kites and electricity at 46.
* He invented the glass armonica at 56.
* He mapped the Gulf Stream at 62.
* He served on the committee that was named to draft the Declaration of Independence at 70.
* He invented bifocals in his late 70s.

By comparison, consider the similar case of Walt Disney. His achievements rank far below Franklin’s, but he too was a conceptual innovator — a finder — who achieved breakthrough successes in middle age. Like Franklin, he kept changing focus. Disney accomplished that by continually expanding his entertainment empire into new fields.


Unaware, but battling hard for aging innovators

June 12, 2007

BachIn his recent Financial Times article “Better great than never,” Christopher Tyler fights against the notion that only the young are innovative. It’s a battle that can be fought and won again and again, I suppose.

Tyler and his interviewees show no awareness of the work of David Galenson, so the piece comes across as a bit half-baked, without much insight into why innovations happen when they do.

It’s valuable nonetheless. Although Tyler does little more than list artists, scientists and inventors and their ages when they produced great work, his list is an impressive one. He starts with contrasting composers and poets:

Meteoric young Mozart is worshipped while staid old Bach is merely revered, though Bach’s youthful improvisations on the organ shocked his Lutheran congregations. Shelley and Keats, dead by 30, shine more lustrously than old Wordsworth – although it was Wordsworth who was mainly responsible for the Romantic movement.

He touches on the step-by-step methods of experimental innovators, without labeling them as such:

Innovation demands more than enthusiasm. Progress in science is not so much revolutionary as incremental. ”You need knowledge before you make a breakthrough,” says Frank James, professor of the history of science at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. ”It is about suddenly recognising that something is important.”

Galileo didn’t do anything of significance until he was past 40, and Faraday didn’t discover electrical induction until he was older still.

(So) it is no surprise to find that most scientific advances were made by people in their 30s and 40s. Ted Hoff was 34 when he invented the microprocessor. The Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles completed his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (a puzzle he decided to crack when still a boy of 10) at the age of 42. Charles Babbage was a year older when he designed his ”analytical engine”, forerunner of the programmable computer. Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin.

Gutenberg press reproductionAt the age of 50, Gutenberg invented his moveable-type printing press, William Harvey published his treatise on the circulation of the blood, … And Louis Pasteur was 60 when he discovered a vaccine for anthrax.

The conceptual approach, which tends to be more successful for youthful innovators, is also evident:

Occasionally the innocence of youth can work in a scientist’s favour. Thanks to his ignorance of chemical structure, William Perkin discovered the first aniline dye, mauveine, by accident when he was an 18-year-old lab assistant. …

The intuitive element of many discoveries reinforces the impression that only the young can be good at invention. Scientific solutions are often associated with an apparently heaven-sent flash of insight – Newton reputedly prompted by the apple’s fall to investigate gravity, for example, or Friedrich August Kekule’s dreaming of a serpent eating its tail to give him the shape of the benzene molecule. Most frequently quoted is the experience of Henri Poincare, who got the answer to an abstruse problem of mathematical functions while climbing on to a bus in Caen. So certain was Poincare of his solution that he settled down to chat with a fellow passenger – they were on a geological field trip – and only bothered to verify it when he got home.

Others in Tyler’s list might be examples of older conceptual innovators who make a breakthrough soon after switching careers.

UranusEven more telling, perhaps, are the examples of those who took up their subjects late in life. William Herschel, for example, was a music teacher before he turned to astronomy, discovering the planet Uranus at 43, infrared radiation and the asteroids at 62, and continuing to make observations into his 70s.

…Literature is full of examples of late vocations: the 19th-century German novelist Theodor Fontane was a chemist before turning to literature, and was nearly 60 before writing the novels that influenced Thomas Mann. Cervantes and Thomas Hobbes both wrote their masterpieces late in life.

Other young innovators are listed without explanation:

Newton, like many mathematicians, was an early starter, identifying the spectrum by means of a prism at the age of 24.

Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock at 28.

And older ones too, including the familiar examples of Cezanne and Monet, whom Galenson often cites:

In the arts, too, inventiveness can go on into old age. Beethoven’s late string quartets were music for another age. Verdi wrote his best operas at the end of his career: his Otello is often described as his most perfect fusion of drama and music.

Cezanne, though he started to break with his contemporaries in his 30s, was more than 60 when he completed his futuristic ”Les Grandes Baigneuses”. Monet gave Impressionism its name with his ”Impression: Soleil Levant”, exhibited in 1872; but it was as a 90-year-old that wrestling with the effects of light and water on his pond at Giverny pushed him into abstractionism.