When thinking about what makes an amazing design, a fun thought experiment is to compare the design of products to the natural evolution of different biological designs.
One could argue that successful biological designs fall into three camps: first, simple designs that have existed for millions of years due to their robust nature (the turtle, for example, which has barely changed over millions of years); second, “high-tech” systems which utilize complex systems to survive (like the human brain); and third, laser-focused designs that optimize for one task (like a cheetah). While these designs are very different, are they not all an amazing design in their own right?
Likewise, when comparing human-designed products one must grapple with whether a robust, long-lasting simple product is a better design than a high-tech, complex system or a highly optimized single-use product. Let’s look at some examples.
The simple hammer – an amazing design!
A great example of a simple design that has maintained its use over time is the hammer. A descendent of the simplest of human tools (the rock), the hammer has slowly evolved over time, not changing significantly but rather slowly improving in simplicity, functionality, durability, and cheapness of manufacturing.
Like the turtle, which manages to survive in many environments and has only evolved slightly with time, the hammer has survived because of its simplicity, toughness and adaptability. Forged from a single piece of steel with a simple leather or rubber grip, the modern hammer is nearly identical to one from a hundred years ago. It is highly resistant to breakage and can be used in any climate for a huge variety of projects, from hanging posters to demolishing walls.
Like the ancient turtle, one can expect that the hammer will continue to exist for a long time. And like the turtle, its simplicity will allow it to outlast and outperform more complex systems that may be ideal for one specific task or environment but won’t hold up when the job or the weather changes.
Bridge span machine
Now let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. While the turtle may plod slowly and safely along, it will never outrun a cheetah. That’s because the cheetah is designed with only one task in mind: running fast. Instead of designing a hard shell for security and a tough skin for durability, nature decided to sacrifice those priorities to optimize for speed.
A human-made design that one could compare with the cheetah is the Chinese-made Segmental Bridge Launching Machine (see video below). This 580-ton monster machine was created for one thing: building bridge spans as quickly as possible. And it does it well, allowing the rapid creation of bridges over spans up to 50 meters long.
Unlike the humble hammer, the bridge launcher is not useful for a variety of tasks. It is not the best tool for straightening a nail or installing a picture frame. However, when it comes to constructing bridge spans, it is a modern marvel. Like the cheetah, it is the best in the world at what it does, at the expense of almost everything else.
Growing in complexity
Finally, let’s look at some designs that use complexity to their advantage. In nature, biology becomes more diverse and more complex over time, with the human brain commonly thought of as the pinnacle of complexity. With this complexity comes extreme adaptability. The human brain has allowed the species to survive and thrive in every conceivable environment, and has even given rise to the concept of human-designed technology!
This adaptability is due to a network of flexible nodes, each of which can be adapted to a number of tasks, from recognizing faces to designing airplane wings. These nodes are organized into networks and connected to sensory inputs, creating the most successful of nature’s biological systems!
More powerful than a human brain?
Like the brain, the integrated circuit chip (or IC chip) is composed of connected nodes, which can be connected in a number of ways and replicated to amass enormous computing power. Even though the connections in a computer chip can’t be re-arranged like the human brain at the most basic level, they can be added together and programmed to create an infinite variety of logical systems, which can control an infinite variety of machines. These can even be connected together to form vast networks of information like the internet and the emerging “internet of things”.
Just as a single human brain’s power is multiplied when combined with others, each computer chip’s power and flexibility is multiplied when connected with other chips and other inputs and outputs. Some people believe that the design of the IC chip will lead to a design that is ultimately even more complex than the human brain itself! We thought the human brain was an amazing design but the IC chip is certainly catching up!