Thinkmap: Visual Thesaurus 1997

Thinkmap: Visual Thesaurus 1997

The first in a wave of java-encoded visualisation software that revealed the power of live computation to arrange text-data in a meaningful visualisation of their relationships, Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus was a revelation to all of us working at the cutting edge of design and technology. In 1997, I was at AMX Studios, working with the designer Malcolm Garrett on a book called Understanding Hypermedia 2.000, and the AMX lead designer Maxine Gregson showed me the Visual Thesaurus. It was a revelation – a superb synthesis of design and software, functional, fun and funky at the same time.

Peter Mark Roget completed his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in 1852, having begun work on compiling a list of words linked by the same idea as early as 1805.

“The Visual Thesaurus is a 3D interactive reference tool, powered by Thinkmap, that gets students of all ages excited about words. Using our visualization technology, the Visual Thesaurus takes a unique, and remarkably beautiful, approach to presenting the results of a word lookup.
The Visual Thesaurus creates an animated display of words and meanings — a visual representation of the English language. The Thinkmap visualization places your word in the center of the display, connected to related words and meanings. You can then click on these words or meanings to explore further.”(Thinkmap)

Frederic Vavrille’s delightful (2005) early interface for his LivePlasma recommendation engine (top), obviously based on the same software principles as the Visual Thesaurus, brought colour and multi-media – pictures, audio-tracks, links to video (etc)

Richard Dawkins: Biomorphs 1986

Richard Dawkins: Biomorphs 1986

In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins described Biomorphs – a simple software program he had written to illustrate the power of Darwinian evolution. His program, written on an Apple Macintosh computer, simulated the evolutionary process of a simple stick-insect-like creature that had merely 9 parameters (or ‘genes’), which could be selected for by the human user. It was an example of un-natural selection, where the selected-for traits were determined by the user thinking – ‘oh that’s interesting!’, or ‘that’s pretty’. The nine gene parameters controlled branching, segmentation and symmetry, and each gene was subject to random mutation. When he ran the program – it drew another iteration of the stick-insect’s evolution every screen-refresh – Dawkins was astonished at the variety such a simple bio-simulator (this research sector became known as Artificial Life and the software a type of  genetic algorithm) could produce.

“When I wrote the program I never thought that it would evolve anything more than a variety of tree-like shapes…Nothing in my biologist’s intuition, nothing in my 20 years’ experience in programming computers, and nothing in my wildest dreams, prepared me for what actually emerged on the screen….(nor) convey my feeling of exaltation as I first watched these exquisite creatures emerging before my eyes.”
From Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker, 1986.


The moral of this story? That just like in real life, complexity can evolve from some some very simple rules, and genetic variation follows – new ‘species’ emerge.

In his book summing the early years of Artificial Life research, Steven Levy has this to say on the Biomorphs:

“Although the (biomorphs) experiment played like a game, it followed the same rules that nature did. In evolving creatures, Dawkins noted, one was not creating them, but discovering them. They already existed, in a sense, as possible permutations of a given set of genes, and of a finite number of mutations. This was what biologists referred to as ‘genetic space’ a mathematical atlas that geographically located all possible life-forms.”

Steven Levy Artificial Life – The Quest for a New Creation 1992