Searching For Zeke The Unborn

If my mom decided to have a fifth child, perhaps if it were a boy he'd have been Aaron, Joachim, or Zeke. If it were a girl, perhaps she'd have been Susana, Elizabeth, or Annera. My mom's done having kids, so I'll never know for sure, but Nymbler thinks it can help expectant parents search for the perfect name. (My wife wanted me to clarify that just because I got married in December doesn't mean I'm using this for personal purposes anytime soon. In case any relatives read this, let's get that out of the way first.)

While I couldn't imagine ever having a baby brother named Zeke, the company behind Nymbler, Icosystem, thinks it can help people intuitively find the names that will suit them. Icosystem calls it a "hunch engine" for when you have an idea of what you're looking form, but you need some help crossing the finish line.

Erick Schonfeld wrote on TechCrunch last month, "Founded by complexity scientist Eric Bonabeau, Icosystem is a Boston-based consulting firm with about 25 people, about $4 million in revenues, and is nicely profitable. Its main bread and butter comes from helping Fortune 500 companies like Eli Lilly with drug discovery or Harrah's Casinos with data mining consumer behavior. But Bonabeau recently told me that he plans on transitioning Icosystem's business in 2008 towards more of a software model by taking some of his custom algorithms and turning them into more generic software that is easier to deploy."



In this case, the hunch engine requires human assistance, as Icosystem teamed up with baby name expert Laura Wattenberg to help train the engine. That doesn't apply to all of the applications for Icosystem's hunch engines. In a live demo, for example, you're presented with six tile patterns, you choose the ones you like, and six updated designs are presented based on your favorites; the patterns can continue to evolve. It's more akin to training your own search algorithm than actual searching, or perhaps a form of guided browsing.

Icosystem isn't the first to come up with some sort of hunch engine, which sits amidst an exploding field of tools and technologies that combine search and discovery. It will be interesting to see where hunch engines make the most impact. It doesn't have anything to do with the monetary value of what's being searched for; it's more about how infinite the options are. Icosystem's applications span both art and science, two fields where consumers use the "I'll know it when I see it" test to find what they want (perhaps the hunch engine would work especially well for pornography).

With science, Icosystem developed an engine to help chemists discover new molecules when they're searching for leads when developing drugs. The engine shows molecules that meet certain selected criteria and presents a field of possibilities to the chemist, who then picks the most promising ones. A new field is then presented based on the selections, and the process can continue for countless generations until the chemist finds what he wants for conducting further analysis.

Many other applications fall under the art umbrella, including picking baby names, tile patterns, and photos on Flickr (or in any other universe). It doesn't take too many leaps to conceive of such a hunch engine that can create a work of art such as a sonnet. The erstwhile poet could enter a structure (Elizabethan or Italian) and plug in some keywords, concepts and phrases, and the sonnet engine would present fields of possibilities, perhaps stanza by stanza, which the poet would pick to evolve the poem until it reached the perfect form. What's telling in this scenario is that it would take a skilled poet to recognize a brilliant stanza; this engine would benefit a skilled poet far more than an amateur in many ways.

This scenario, bizarre as it may seem, is hardly far off from the tile pattern demo. One with a keener artistic eye is bound to find a more aesthetic pattern. An artist could even use that to inspire actual paintings; try the demo, and I can practically guarantee you'll stumble on some patterns that look at least as good as certain works hanging in the Museum of Modern Art.

In short, what we have here is one more vision for the future of search. It starts with a search, leads to discovery, and ends with an artistic masterpiece, a wonder drug, or a newborn's name. We're only beginning to understand how meaningful the act of searching online can be.

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