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The application of ‘elegance’ to machine behavior

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30 January 2010



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We all have some idea of what elegance means, whether our notion of it is tied up with silky evening dresses, polished wood and brass, chandeliers and stained glass windows, exotic carpets, and expensive sports cars, or with youthful bodies that are tanned and fit, knowing the local language well enough to use it sparingly with assurance, being appropriately dressed for the weather, good posture, fluid movement, a varied diet of moderate proportions, giving every task as much time as it requires, and so on.

 

Applying the notion of elegance to machine behavior may resonate for some and not for others. What could it possibly mean, elegant machine behavior, wouldn’t that be a contradiction in terms?

 

In this piece on another blog, I suggest that Apple should get into robotics, partly because to fail to do so would be to leave the largest looming growth market to others, and partly because I believe the company has something to contribute, something relating to elegance. I think Apple would set a high standard for machine behavior, and then exceed it, providing a tangible example of first-order elegance.

 

I say “first-order elegance” to suggest that there is also a “second-order” or “meta-elegance” that looks beyond present behavior to its ultimate effects. For example, formality may appear elegant, but if children are subjected to it all the time they may fail to develop emotional intelligence, an inelegant result.

 

As applied here, it is second-order or meta-elegance that is more important. It matters far less whether machines that tend land appear deft in their actions than whether the result of those actions appears more garden or desert-like. That’s not to say that first-order elegance is unimportant. Efficient movement, of the entire machine and of its parts, is an important aspect of cost-effectiveness, but efficiently producing a undesirable result gains nothing.

 

I believe that second-order elegance is achievable in this context, that machines can be programmed to understand complex living systems and nurture them, while raising food and fiber for market in their midst. If I didn’t believe that I would never have bothered trying to explain this vision of a greener future founded on robotics.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.



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John Payne





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