Do you know how "long-life USB memory sticks, superfast racing-yacht keels, ultra-high bandwidth optical fibres, improved cochlear implants and a cancer-biopsy analyser that matches a human pathologist's tumour-spotting skills" were all invented? The answer is: by a machine. Or rather, to be more precise, by a program called "an evolutionary algorithm", as reported in the Economist's latest Technology Quarterly. The idea is Darwinian: you program a computer to try as many variations on a theme until it spots the most useful and inventive one and "selects" it.
The funniest part of the article comes at the end:
"[Dr Koza's] team at Stanford developed a Wi-Fi antenna for a client who did not want to pay a patent-licence fee to Cisco Systems. The team fed the algorithm as much data as they could from the Cisco patent and told the software to design around it. It succeeded in doing so. The result is a design that does not infringe Cisco's patent—and is more efficient to boot. A century and a half after Darwin suggested natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, engineers have proved him right once again."