Saturday Night: A little advice from a lap-top oracle

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In a penthouse office suite with vertiginous views over the Thames, Guy Damian-Knight, director of Tao Management, sits cross-legged on the carpet, his hand hovering over a lap-top computer. He is about to demonstrate the new business software package he has designed. I would rather he left me to explore it myself, but I sit patiently, willing him to invite me to try it.

Its function is to assist executives in planning, management and decision- making by incorporating elements of change and intuition. Computer hardware manufacturers are eager to strike a deal; Apple wants to include it as standard software on its new electronic organiser, the Newton. Yet the essential information in his software is nothing new. In fact it is based on an ancient divination system whose origins are lost in the mists of time.

The I-Ching or Chinese Book of Changes is thought to be about 3,000 years old, although some scholars date it even earlier. Chinese emperors and statesmen regarded it as the ultimate oracle, a means of analysing every important decision or act to check its alignment with the Tao, or universal law. But it was not until 1951 that the first English translation appeared, complete with an enthusiastic introduction by Jung, the father of psychoanalysis. During the Sixties the I-Ching became a core text of hippiedom, and subsequently gained popularity in the West; since then dozens of contemporary interpretations have appeared.

The author of two such works, Damian-Knight is something of an authority; so it was a simple step, he says, to produce Decision Track, a program that interprets the I-Ching's 64 hexagrams in relatively prosaic, modern terms. The idea is to save harassed executives from having to find three pounds 1 coins, throw them six times, note the 'lines' thus created, look up the hexagram, then find and interpret the often oblique, and sometimes incomprehensible commentary in terms of corporate strategy. Instead they can simply frame the question, press the return key, and read hexagram and business interpretation on-screen. Advice can be refined by selecting menu choices including 'recruitment', 'investment' and 'marketing'. For real churn-and-burn types there is even a 'one-minute decision maker' facility.

But why would successful business people check their own judgement? 'There is a considerable intuitive element in every rational decision we make,' according to Damian-Knight. 'By acknowledging this and working with it, the decision-making process is both speeded up and made more stable. The I-Ching is a resonance system that reflects our rational thought processes, putting us in touch with our intuition.'

Of course, there are those who doubt the effectiveness of an ancient Chinese oracle in the modern marketplace, but few of them are familiar with the achievements of Matsushita Konosuke, founder of the Matsushita Corporation. In one generation this legendary Japanese industrialist built his company into the 23rd- largest in the world, a multi-billion- dollar entertainment and electronics empire that includes Panasonic and MCA among its brand names. Matsushita openly based his business philosophy on close consultation of the I-Ching. His success led to slavish imitation among other Japanese firms: now, even Western giants such as IBM use the Book of Changes to train their new executives in 'awareness'.

Damian-Knight's involvement dates back to the days after he graduated. He had studied philosophy and law, but left university still searching for truth. Then he stumbled across the I-Ching and found 'a description of the laws of the universe'. He developed such a thorough knowledge of the I-Ching's complex mathematical principles and their application to theoretical physics, that he was nominated for a Nobel prize. 'But that is nothing,' he says. Well, not compared to his latest theoretical work, which, he claims, is of such import that were it to prove correct 'it would be like reinventing the wheel'.

Put simply, Damian-Knight believes he has found the key to producing an anti-gravity force. He cannot say more than that unless I am willing to sign a non-disclosure document or put up some cash. All he needs now, he says, is ' pounds 15m for research and building a prototype'. Licensing Decision Track to Apple or Toshiba is not an end in itself, he says, but would merely enable him to pursue his dream project.

He smiles and, to my alarm, pushes the return key. Hexagram 25 appears on the screen. Damn, I wanted to do that. 'Innocence,' he reads aloud. 'Success if you wait and meditate. Don't plot and scheme, don't act at this time. Stay still and be aware.' There's a moving line, which gives us another hexagram. He presses the key again. 'Following,' he reads. 'This is auspicious,' he assures me. 'If you remain calm and aware, you will get success and a following.'

'Yes, but it refers to you,' I say. 'You pressed the key.'

'Ah, yes, but I was thinking about your future when I pressed it.'