Thursday, June 18, 2009

Coping with complexity - Lessons from Albatross

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the difference between complex and complicated problems. The more you work on a complex problem, the more details you uncover and the more complex it becomes. You can solve complicated problems but you have to learn to cope with complex ones. How?

I think we can learn something from the Albatross.

The Albatross is a remarkable bird. It flies over the oceans without touching land. It feeds on fish that it finds as it flies around. But fish are not especially plentiful in the open ocean and moreover they are not evenly distributed, they gather together in shoals. So how does the Albatross know where to find shoals of fish to feed on?

To answer this question, scientists attached transmitters to some Albatross and tracked their flight. A huge amount of data was collected. The scientists were unable to explain the data in terms of normal distributions. It seemed highly complex. The Albatross either made short flights before stopping (the assumptions is that they stop to rest or to feed) or they made long flights. When they made long flights, they either branched off suddenly or they stopped after a certain distance and then took off in a different direction. What was going on?

They asked Gene Stanley, a brilliant physicist, to help. He took the data and looked for patterns. It turns out that the flight path of the Albatross is an example of a random walk known as a Lévy flight. It is statistically the most efficient way to forage for food that is sparsely and randomly distributed.

This is how it works. The Albatross looks around for signs of fish. If it sees evidence of fish then it flies to that spot, finds the fish and feeds. If it cannot see any signs of fish then it flies in a randomly chosen direction. As it flies it looks around for fish. If it sees any then it flies towards them and feeds. If it does not see any fish then it flies only for a limited distance before stopping and changing direction.

I think we can learn a lot from the Albatross. I think that remarkable ideas are sparsely and randomly distributed in oceans of obvious ideas. The trick is to keep moving in different directions until your find something that works. If the Albatross sat still and waited for the fish to come along, more often than not they would die waiting. When foraging for answers a random walk is the best strategy.

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