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.