Greater Diversity through Evolutionary Algorithms

Recently I read a rather interesting article from a Scientific American blog which hypothesizes about the shape of the human penis from an evolutionary standpoint.

[The methodology employed is described as  “logico-deductive investigative” — meaning that the penis current form is studied within the context of its function and hypothesis are formed, working backwards, regarding why this form came about. I imagine that this is the most natural methodology an evolutionary biologist or psychologist might employ. Understanding this and other methods of explaining evolutionary design might be an interesting exploration for some future post. ]

In a follow-up interview, the researcher Gordon Gallup emphasizes that evolution occurs by selection, not by design. “The raw material for such selection consists of nothing more than random genetic accidents (mutations).” As such, two separate genetic branches cannot be expected to follow the same path of optimization, even if starting with identical initial parameters. This is, of course, very fortunate, for it leads to the great diversity of life where so many radically different methods are employed to solve the same universal problems of survival. 

In contrast, the  solutions reached by purposeful human design are far more limited in diversity. A student of architecture, for example,  might be struck by the number of radically different approaches that humans have employed. 



This range of designs, however, is determined solely by human creativity and contrained by cultural, religious, and other influences. Augmenting human creativity with evolutionary computations could result in an explosion of design ideas.

While one might hesitate to accept that computers could so directly contribute to the creation of art, and before we dive in protest into philosophy and aesthetics, allow me to point out that 

  1. computers and electronic media are already an important contributor to art today, and all that is being suggested is an additional computer-based tool in artistic exploration
  2. we find diversity in nature beautiful, and there is no great difference between natural selection and a hypothetical evolutionary algorithm on a computer.

Architecture’s easily recognizable combination of engineering and art makes it a convenient example. The idea that the increased use of evolutionary methods could lead to a dramatically greater diversity of solutions, however, extends well beyond architecture to many other disciplines, both scientific and creative.

May 10, 2009. Tags: , , , , . Emergence. Leave a comment.

Aggregates, Crystals and a simple algorithm to explore.

A particle randomly floats through space eventually encountering a stationary ‘seed’. The two stick together and form a cluster that grows and grows as more randomly floating particles encounter it and attach themselves.  This is a simple algorithm, and it is actually quite provocative.

Simple Fractal created using the described method.

Simple Fractal created using the described method.

Known as diffusion limited aggregation (DLA), the process produces clusters like the ones in the above images. The clusters are called Brownian Trees and are fractal with a dimensionality of about 1.7.  They were the inspiration for all sorts of computer art in and since the 90s (see Paul Bourke’s work and images — if you try his software, let me know what you think of it). 

Coral Growth Pattern

Coral Growth Pattern

DLA simulates several types of natural processes. Paul Bourke notes that zinc particles in an electrolytic solution wander around aimlessly before attaching themselves to electrodes. More familiar might be the path taken by electricity in a lightning bolt (using a plane instead of a point as the attractor) or in those plasma globes you can find at stores like Spencer’s Gifts (using a spherical attractor).  

Aggregation of the soot produced in the combustion of motor fuels reduces the performance of the engine, and the network structures they produce are DLA-based. …and so on — the world is full of DLA.

A seed is often carefully chosen to reduce randomness in the controlled growth of crystals, but a seed is also that piece of dirt on your window on a cold cold day that serves as an attractor for the frost that begins to form. And this frost can be so very beautiful.

When I came down to breakfast, two of the windows were almost opaque and the others were etched with graceful, fernlike sprays of ice which looked rather like the impressions left in rocks by some of the antediluvian plants, and they were almost as beautiful as anything which the living can achieve. Nothing else which has never lived looks so much as though it were actually informed with life.  
— Joseph Wood Krutch, “The Colloid and the Crystal.”

Diffusion Limited Aggregation is a very simple algorithm to describe and to visualize.  As a simulation for countless natural phenomenon, it has applications in science and in engineering. It is beautiful to look at, and with small variations yields even more interesting results. It is algorithms like these that inspire us to explore of the world of algorithms.

February 18, 2009. Tags: , , , , , . Chaos, Emergence. 2 comments.

Emergence Project: Representing a Textual Discourse

via information aesthetics on 11/18/08

The Emergence Project [] is a “software art” installation exhibited at Hyde Park Art Center‘s digital building facade gallery. It is based on the ideas and textual discourse that emanated out of the Chicago Humanities Festival: its presentations, performances, and panel discussions were captured, analyzed, and processed into a set of dynamic data visualizations that evolve dynamically over time.

The generative data artwork uses simple morphological rules to animate word clusters, based on linguistic proximity, similarity, and difference. It deliberately utilizes computer-generated animation to chart how complex patterns arise out of a multiplicity of simple interactions, a phenomenon known as “emergence“.

Via Visual Complexity.

January 15, 2009. Tags: . Emergence. Leave a comment.

TedTalk: Learning from Evolution

Robert Full describes ways in which engineers can and have learned from evolutionary systems in biology. He notes that we can get ideas from animals and insects, but we cannot copy them blindly.

December 28, 2008. Tags: , , . Emergence. Leave a comment.

Surprising Results from Emergent Systems II

I can’t help but share this video with you. 

Yes, it is an ant colony. You might rather call this an ant city-state, though. This massive construction displaced 40 tons of soil during construction. A scaled comparison to a human contruction would put this colony on par with the Great Wall of China (according to the narrator of the TV documentary “Ants! Nature’s Secret Power” excerpted in the video below).

This city contains, among other things, a complex air conditioning system for fresh air circulation and to regulate both humidity and temperature. Scientists filled the chambers with cement and dug around it to study a neatly engineered system of chambers and highways for efficient transportation. 

Consider the size of a ant’s brain. Behavioral complexity is said to be related to the cube of head width, or 3/2 power of brain volume.  An ant’s brain is approximately 1/40,000th the size of a human brain at less than 1 milligram. 

December 18, 2008. Emergence. 1 comment.

Surprising Results from Emergent Systems

One of my favorite examples of a surprising result from an emergent system is an experiment that utilized a genetic algorithm to solve a sorting problem on a FPGA chip. The hope was to arrive at the best (minimal) solution to the sorting problem faster and with more confidence than a human could. The actual result was that the genetic algorithm found a solution that was better than what theory said was even possible!

How did that happen? It turned out that the models humans used and programmed into computer simulations were not in fact complete. They are based in theoretical simplifications that do not fully describe the physical world, in which nature is not limited to the ‘1’s and ‘0’s of electrical theory, in which nature could take advantage of the minute electromagnetic coupling of electrical components packed tightly into a silicon ship, in which higher order effects not considered by models could be utilized to solve the problem. 

By physically wiring an infinitely reprogrammable Xilinx XC6216 FPGA chip to allow the genetic algorithm to use a physical board — instead of a computer simulation of the board — the algorithm arrived at a solution that used fewer steps and fewer gates than the best solution previously offered by theory. 

“What is downright scary is this: the FPGA only used 32 of its 100 available logic gates to achieve its task, and when scientists attempted to back-engineer the algorithm of the circuit, they found that some of the working gates were not even connected to the rest through normal wiring. Yet these gates were still crucial to the functionality of the circuit. This means, according to Thompson, that either electromagnetic coupling or the radio waves between components made them affect each other in ways which the scientists could not discern (Taubes 1997).”

The structure of the genetic solution discarded the need for models or theory and was allowed to experiment with actual physical properties.  All that was needed were rules that allowed better solutions to survive in each generation until the optimal result was achieved. 

Read more: [PDF] 

Not all problems are suitable for such an evolutionary approach; it is often impractical even when it does work. But what appeals to me is the idea that we can  do what nature does. We can use simple rules to find an amazingly efficient solutions to a problem, without understanding how that solution really works. Not far in the future, the world might be full of algorithmic solutions as diverse and amazing to a computer scientist as the animals of the world are to a zoologist.

December 15, 2008. Tags: , , , . Emergence. 1 comment.


Emergence is a very interesting concept in the computing world: the idea that complex phenomenon can arise from relatively simple interactions. There are two types of emergence, somewhat controversially:  weak emergence and strong emergence.  The wikipedia article provides an introduction to the mystery, but the essential difference is that strong emergence suggests that the resultant is more than the sum of its parts; with strong emergence, you end up with something that cannot be explained by dissembling into constituents.

Imagine a simple rule for a termite: “walk around until you see a wood chip, then pick it up — unless you’re already carrying a wood chip, in which case, drop it.” Simple rules like these have been shows to lead to incredibly large and complex termite mounds , one of the oft quoted examples of emergence.

In the world of algorithms, an emergent system is one that exhibits complex results based on such simple rules. A combination of NAND gates can be used to simulate essentially any sophisticated logic function. An artificial neural network (ANN) similarly leads to complex results, and the inherent fuzzy logic allows the system to correctly solve problems it has never encountered before.

Evolutionary algorithms (EAs) utilize simple rules repeatedly until parameters converge on the desired solution.  It should be of no surprise to anyone that understands Darwin’s ideas that this can produce almost limitless complexity.  The rich history of EAs, leading to what is now known as Evolutionary Computation will be the subject of a future post.

Cellular Automaton models allow complexity to arrive through both time (generations of self-replication) and the connectionist approach.

These concepts are best illustrated by example, which I will dive into in subsequent posts. I hope to explore these different computational themes and show how they are connected by recurring philosophical ideas such as ‘Holism vs. Reductionism’, and along the way we will remind ourselves to question whether our examples exhibit strong emergence or merely weak emergence.

December 12, 2008. Tags: . Emergence. Leave a comment.

What is an Algorithm?

The term “Algorithm” is a broad one, but on this blog I will use it primarily to refer to a set of computer instructions for completing some task.

I will not in this introduction dive into a discussion of denotations, the etymology of the word, classifications and history of algorithms, and so forth — it is not my intention to reproduce encyclopedia pages here. Instead, I would like to use this space for personal musings and explorations, and as a means to learn with my readership about those things that make algorithms so damn interesting.

My first order of business on this blog is to pick some low hanging fruit: I’d like to share some unoriginal ideas about algorithms as a way of establishing some common foundation for our discussion. You may already be familiar with these ideas, but bear with me. Brushing upon them will help me justify the existence and discover the direction of this blog.


November 17, 2008. General. Leave a comment.

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