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.