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Exploring the adjacent possible: play, anticipation, surprise

Author: Vittorio Loreto


Novelties occur frequently in our individual daily lives. We meet new people, learn and use new words, listen to new songs, watch a new movie, adopt a new technology. Such new experiences sometimes happen by chance. Often they are triggered by earlier new experiences, thus providing an effective correlation between their appearances. Historically the notion of the new has always offered challenges to humankind. What is new often defies the natural tendency of humans to predict and control future events. Still, most of the decisions we take are based on our expectations about the future. From this perspective a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms through which novelties emerge and humans anticipate their occurrence is key to progress in all sectors of human activities. The common intuition that one new thing often leads to another is captured, mathematically, by the notion of "adjacent possible", i.e., the set of all those things (ideas, linguistic structures, concepts, molecules, genomes, technological artefacts, etc.) that are one step away from what actually exists, and hence can arise from incremental modifications and recombination of existing material. In this talk I'll present a mathematical framework, describing the expansion of the adjacent possible, whose predictions are borne out in several data sets drawn from social and technological systems. Finally I'll discuss how games could represent a extraordinary framework to experimentally investigate basic mechanisms at play whenever we learn, create and innovate.  I'll present a few examples illustrating how people explore the adjacent possible space.