Emmanuel Amberber

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Objective: Not everything is possible

Not everything is possible.

You can’t jump twelve feet in the air. And while many children dream of becoming an astronaut, only a few will actually pilot a spacecraft. Impossibility isn’t a popular topic in our culture, where we say that you can be anything that you want to be, do anything if you put your mind to it. But in this chapter we’ll stare impossibility straight in the eye—though we won’t sacrifice our optimism in exchange. Instead, we’ll discover a source of optimism that embraces the uncertainty of the far future rather than fearing or denying it. This journey begins by considering both the power and limitations of searching for novelty.
It might seem like the lesson of novelty search is that finding the objective is often easier when not looking for it. You might even solve more problems by not worrying about them instead of actually trying to solve them. So if you look at it that way, novelty search might seem to be just a new tool that can be added to the existing toolbox for achieving objectives.

And it’s true that some of the computer experiments with novelty search do actually produce this kind of outcome: The maze-navigating robot learns to solve mazes best when it’s not trying to solve them; the biped learns to walk farthest when it’s not trying to walk.

But we need to be careful how we interpret these results—what they seem to say on the surface is possibly misleading. We should be especially cautious when scientific results introduce something strange and new. Just as a car is not merely a new kind of horse, novelty search is not just a new or better way of reaching an objective. While the evidence clearly shows that sometimes you can do better without a specific objective, a deeper point is that of course novelty search will not always find what you want. Surely we can concoct problems where wandering without a care in the space of all possibilities fails to stumble upon a particular objective.

And even if your own personal journey doesn’t end where you had hoped, the idea of the solitary inventor striving relentlessly towards her inevitable objective was always a myth. Rather, it’s the combination of many minds with many different interests that ultimately plunders the search space in the long run, not any individual objective or person. We can be confident that the Butterflies and Cars of our future will be found not because someone is looking for them, but because everyone is looking for everything. The future will arrive off schedule, but it will arrive nonetheless.

This insight may seem sad, that we’re left with no sure compass, that all our efforts to create certainty and to search with purpose may be futile. But our disappointment may be misplaced. Perhaps search isn’t really about objectives but about something much bigger. In that case, abandoning the false compass can be liberating, opening up a new frontier. Novelty search shows that it’s possible to capture the process of open-ended innovation and divergent thinking even within a computer.

So it can’t be a mystical form of voodoo but rather a principled and logical process that we can understand and even capture. If discovery without explicit objectives is the guiding light of natural evolution, of human innovation and novelty search, then we might harness it for our own purposes. Instead of something to fear it can be something to embrace.

From: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, Kenneth by Stanley and Joel Lehman


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