Ideas, models, and design

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Discussions of the relative merits of intelligent design and natural selection fill endless web pages, but it strikes me that these discussions consistently overlook the nature of design itself. Intelligent design happens all the time; we may disagree on whether God or pasta-themed deities design, but we can at least agree that humans do it.

But what is design? Or, put another way, if God is doing intelligent design, then what exactly is he doing?

What a designer does is rapidly iterate through a bunch of ideas, testing them against his experience, rejecting some and keeping others for further tuning. The precursor ideas for this process come from variations on pre-existing designs. In other words, design is a process of selection with descent and variation.

If God is a designer, then maybe he’s doing it right now with lions, lemurs, begonias, and bloggers through the subtle but decidedly unmiraculous process of natural selection. You don’t have to damage science to imagine Galapagos finch beaks as God’s thoughts unfolding. Of course, that’s a matter of taste and scarcely debatable. It doesn’t prove anything and it doesn’t “mean” anything, but it is one way to frame the problem so we can just move on.

Design is predicated on an experiential model of reality. The intelligent design that humans do differs from the “design” that happens in natural selection primarily by the rate at which generational culling happens. Humans have the benefit of rapidly simulating how a design will perform without needing to build it first. Increasingly we will give this skill to our synthetic descendants. Here’s a beautiful example of how modeling operates at the boundary of action and thought.

The Cornell Computational Synthesis Lab: Robotics Self Modeling

Be sure and watch the video of the damaged robot struggling to walk. Depending on your outlook, it’s either very disturbing or spine-tinglingly beautiful. Either way, I promise you it’s a bona fide glimpse of the future.

3 thoughts on “Ideas, models, and design”

  1. hello!

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