Like I’ve said in my previous post, I wondered if there wasn’t a more sustainable relationship possible between nature and the technology resulting from our human nature, a relationship with mutual benefit, because we are all intertwined and dependent on each other, soil and people, earth and the species living on it.
The biggest R&D department in the world
Biomimicry is a way of searching for innovation in a sustainable way by mimicking certain natural patterns (that have been thoroughly time-tested). The idea behind it is that nature has solved numerous challenges that we too are faced with and we might learn a thing or two. If you think about it all nature’s creatures are engineers: ants, microbes, otters, … Compared to us nature has had billions of years of ‘Agile development’ to find the best configurations for survival. Nature resolved engineering problems. Think self-healing, tolerance and resistance to environmental exposure, hydrophobicity, self-assembly, and even harnessing solar energy. Don’t forget that it seems to be only the human species that was crafted a bit shabbily by nature. The rest of the fauna and flora surrounding us were mostly designed and developed extremely ingeniously.
“Think of our planet as a research-and-development lab in which the best ideas have moved forward, and the ones that used too much energy or materials or were toxic were dropped. What you wind up with are organisms that are efficient.”
The idea of biomimetics looks at how all this natural research could be used to face human challenges in a more circular and sustainable way. Biomimetics helped new technologies gain popularity that are inspired by biological solutions and this from a macro to a nanoscale. It might not be the first time in history humans look to nature for answers, but it’s the first time the symbiosis with (digital) technology is becoming this widespread.
Designing the world
How about some examples to make this point a bit more solid.
Aside from the study of functional adaptations to nature, biomimicry also searches for deep patterns or laws that apply to all organisms and have proven to be beneficial. An example of these patterns is the concept of being locally attuned and responsive. This principle is a guideline to how an artefact, species or design can be designed so that it would be in harmony with its surroundings.
Take for example the Arctic fox, it changes the color and thickness of its fur in the summer and winter, white and thick in the winter when it’s snowy and more camel, beige-colored and thin in the summer so that he matches the tundra and can endure the sun. It’s fair to say the fox is very attuned and responsive. So what’s the lesson we can learn here, to take into account when designing a product, be it digital or physical. All products should be attuned and responsive. We have to make them fit seamlessly for various users and usage. We should ask ourselves how they react to different needs and environments. Your product isn’t going to stand the test of time if it causes friction for the user and is not flexible or interactive with its environment.
The less futureproof it is, the more likely it will be discarded after a while which is not sustainable, evidently. If we move from product or web design to architecture, design’s largest scale, we see that there are already a lot of copycats in construction, material, design and even the adaptation to extreme weather conditions. There is ongoing research at MIT that is looking at how a cell in our body is structured to copy that into the fundamentals of big building structures to make them more resilient.
So we had design, but even for my fellow Bagaarians, I can only make a convincing point if the use for development or technology is also being proved. So here goes!
BioDigital, BioEngineering and BioHacking
These terms may sound strange and sci-fi-ish but they exist and are very much alive and kicking in the subset between digital and biology. These new technologies are going to have a huge impact in our culture and quality of life. Some examples could be wearables that can replace first aid or prostheses by bionic hands or legs. An especially good example of this is CRISPR.
CRISPR is making a dramatic entry
CRISPR has the potential to completely change how we exist as a species. I’m not going to go into detail (mainly to not make a fool of myself in front of possible bio-expert readers) but in short you could say that CRISPR allows us to tweak our own “source code”. This means we could erase hazardous pieces of code like cancer or genetically transferable diseases, which would be one of the biggest achievements technology ever made. But like most technological developments there are still some downsides that cannot be ignored. The risk is that if we can upgrade every person we become a very genetically homogenous species and thus we might be less likely to survive unexpected adverse environmental events. But there are many upsides too (otherwise I wouldn’t bring it up because it’s not good for the case I’m making here).
CRISPR opened up the ability to cut and paste in genes so quickly, easily and precise that its application for biofuels, materials, food, genetic diseases… are legion. And most importantly, it can be done within a much shorter timeframe and at a relatively low cost. If I was to tell you that over the past 9 months more than 200 million dollars were invested in startups working with CRISPR technology, you can guess this is going to be a big deal in the near future. Like I said in my intro, it is quit useless to ponder about wether or not we are willing to let a new technology into our lives. CRISPR will be a reality, lets not waste time thinking about how we want this to impact us while thinking we can or should stop it.
(for more info on CRIPSR, watch this video)
So we saw how digital is hacking bio and how we can learn from nature to design in a more sustainable way, but it goes further than that. We could also look at how networks are constructed in nature, how information is gathered and spread.
Take for example the idea of open source or even crowdsourcing, a thematic that is also emerging in biotech. The core idea behind this philosophy is that those who are connected and give freely to their networks, win. Knowledge and/or power is not stored or sourced in one single place but via a vast network of nodes or actors that contribute. This is very typical also for nature.
Have you ever met a turtle that patented the way his shield protected him? I haven’t. The urge to keep all discoveries, knowledge and development inside centralized and closed networks is not beneficial for progress or to guard them in such networks if potential new developments are in fact for the better of mankind. Nature, on the contrary, shares all her secrets with us, they’re there for the taking!
In science specifically this can mean that for research you could call in the help of non-academics to be your eyes and ears and provide you with feedback about specific variables in a predescribed context. Platforms like the Zooniverse are a beautiful example of this citizen science (be careful not to become addicted, I’ve spotted penguins for hours during my exams).
In the digital realms Wikipedia is a very good example of both open source and crowdsourcing. It’s an encyclopedia free for everyone to use and also to contribute to. Another, maybe less conceptual way of mimicking how networks are constructed in nature is found in blockchain technology, an example of a decentralized network in technology.
What is so beneficial to a decentralized or even distributed network that we would copy this from nature? Let’s take a close-to-home example. Since it’s almost Christmas (at least according to IKEA) I will keep up the jolly spirit. You all know the drama of the Christmas lights. They are super fragile, get totally tangled up in Houdini-like knots and when one is broken, the whole chain gives up. Or at least until 1999 or something that was the case. Well, that’s because the lights formed a serial chain and if one broke all the ones before and after him did too because the connection to its source of power was lost.
The same thing goes for networks. If you have a centralized network with all data or power or even electricity stored on 1 node, in one place or inside one person’s head you are extremely fragile. An attack on this 1 node, place or person could take down the whole network. Like when you kill a powerplant and the whole town goes black without power.
Research has shown that nature isn’t so foolish to be the victim of a situation as described above. Trees for example have a way of communicating; they form a worldwide network (the woodwide network!) sharing information about fungi, predators, climate change and who knows, some gossip too. If you were to take out 1 tree, it wouldn’t have any effect on their network. If one DNS name server gets attacked (happened 2 weeks ago) Twitter, Spotify, the New York Times and some other huge players get thrown off the air. The attack was pointed at 1 single server and yet it could do this much damage. Not such a solid or decentralized network in my opinion. And the worst part was that I couldn’t even tweet about Twitter being down.
One technology I have talked about a couple of times is blockchain. For more info and an intro I wish to kindly refer you to a couple of blog posts ago. Here I want to zoom in on 1 specific characteristic, namely being decentralized or even distributed. The giant ledger or database that is blockchain is copied to and stored on every node in its network. So if one is hacked, all the others can continue. You could even hack 99% of the nodes in a network and there would still be a copy of the ledger. If you would hack 99% of anything, it would be very much lost. Not only computing power and storage are distributed in a blockchain but also control and, depending on the application, responsibility. If there is corruption on the chain, all nodes can see and decline the fraudulent transaction.
I’m just going to shamelessly quote myself from a previous post here (somebody has to do it): “Let’s have a look at nature, how cells are built to create organisms, how our neurons are all interconnected to create a neural network. This is done in a distributed way. We don’t have a big boss behind a mahogany desk with a glass of bourbon in his hand telling our arms and legs what to do. Our natural universe is entirely built up by distributed networks of cells, neurons, protons, … and much smaller bits and pieces that all work together in harmony to grow and manifest themselves. So why don’t we work like that in governance, in finance, in all our inter-subjective relations? It has proven to be quite effective, I believe. Well, Blockchain can make that possible. Who knew technology could be so natural.”
Now I have bugged you enough with my blockchain fanmail so maybe on to a next example.
While the world’s technological opinion makers are warning us about Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a one-way street towards singularity, this could also bring a lot of good into this world, if done right. Artificial Intelligence has the potential to profoundly change the way we interact with the world around us. It could increase efficiency significantly and bring us closer to natural processes while doing so. Our lack of natural instincts could be compensated by the knowledge we can retrieve from deep learning algorithms. This is the idea of socratic intellectualism, that if we would know the ‘right thing’ we would always act according to it. So if we as humans misbehave it’s because we lack information or wisdom on how to do better. If (and I want to emphasize the IF) you follow this train of thought, the full access to information and insights AI could provide us with could dramatically improve our behavior.
But the possible impact of AI can go even further, to the level of how algorithms are constructed. Take for example Swiftkey, a predictive typing keyboard company. They are working on a back-end that is sophistically built up around AI. They have constructed artificial neural networks (ANNs) that are directly based on the structure and workings of a human brain.
Lean and mean
If we would look a bit closer to home, the Bagaar home, where development is part of the daily routine, there is a nice example of Biomimicry too.
One golden rule in nature is the usage of feedback loops. These are cyclical information flows that make it possible for organisms to adapt and react to environmental changes and situations. These feedback loops are at the core of the Agile development concept, something most of you have heard about a few times already (everything is agile, lean and mean nowadays). The idea is very similar to that of nature’s feedback loops. Agile development is built around the idea that you design and develop in small teams where everybody is an active member and you divide the product you are building in small building blocks to work on. Every building block is developed during 1 sprint and after this sprint the building block is reviewed and adjusted where needed based on feedback. This process repeats itself until you have a minimal viable product or a proof of concept. With this MVP or POC you go to the real end-users as soon as possible to start collecting valuable feedback to improve your product, update it and go through the same process over and over again. This system tries to dodge some very classical f*ckups in digital development that generate from a waterfall model where after you get a clients briefing the next touchpoint is a finished product without any consultation or input in between. This hardly ever works out for the best.
Ok so, I’ve sketched roughly the why and how technology was born, then I gave some context of how the relationship between nature and technology evolved over time to bring us to the present day. We agreed (yes, you agreed) on the fact that the very reason why technology was put into place was being fired up by it, and then I shared with you my insights on how biology or nature and technology might make it to the next century together, if they take couples counseling seriously. Now let’s wrap it up with some wise words for the road.
Do nature and digital get along?
After reading all this, I believe it’s fair to say that potentially nature and (digital) technology could become BFF’s, they’re currently just having some issues. I would even dare go further and state that if we go about this the right way, technology might be saving us from extinction yet another time. If we manage to make the means for making profit and satisfying our ever growing needs match with the means to generate more sustainable businesses and consumption, this crisis (the climate one) might be diverted. I mean that if making your factory more efficient can cut costs ànd at the same time generate less waste, that’s a double win very likely to motivate people to change their behavior. In order to do so we can look at nature for inspiration on the level of organization, network building, design, development and even how to use Artificial Intelligence.
Take a moment to look at evolution with pink glasses and imagine what the world would look like if this was the path we would be walking on, where we could continue to improve our life quality, answer all the needs humans have without damaging nature or ourselves. This would be a utopia where all shitty unfulfilling jobs were done by robots and all humans on earth were healthy, safe and lived in peace (because there wouldn’t be oil or scarcity, we just need to figure out the religion thing then). We would not even consider our jobs as being any different from free time except we might be paid for it and more importantly we would regain our ‘free time’ to do what we humans are good at and where most other species are the losers.
We can spend our time on inventing new solutions, creating art, music, taking care of family, reading, writing, having drinks with friends and dressing up for parties, … we would strive towards real superhumans. If this is what is meant by singularity, then it’s officially my most favorite buzzword from now one. And to come back to the slide that made me think and write all of this… We are only going to become more natural in this hypothesis and our surroundings too. The idea that we have an actual choice in this might even be an illusion. Because if the gap between technology and nature is going to continue to grow, we will annihilate ourselves. No nature, no room.