CAMDEN, Me. Technology is impotent to solve global-scale problems unless those who drive technology innovations take some humble lessons from Life. That was the take-away for some 350 attendees at the PopTech gathering here for three days ending on Saturday (October 23).
"The world needs to spend 1 percent of its GDP on reversing potential catastrophic consequences of continuing to live the way we do," said Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA. He said that the technology is available today for cleaner air, water and the environment. It just takes commitment to use it broadly.
That was music to the ears of the mostly enlightened audience who were attracted to PopTech by this year's theme: "The next renaissance". Nearly thirty speakers expounded on new ideas to renew efforts of applying technology to solve global problems. Subjects ranged from biomimicry to the definition of happiness.
The nascent discipline of biomimicry crosses the lines among biology, scientific observation and engineering know-how. Proponents of biomimicry contend that nature has not been effectively consulted as a source of information, inspiration, and innovation. Janine Benyus, a naturalist writer, has explored this idea by asking: "How might we apply biological designs, processes, and laws to the design of human systems?"
Benyus said that so far biomimicry has greatly inspired computer software by finding news ways to work with DNA and proteins. What about applying the laws of biology to hardware? She claimed that scientists and engineers need to look at how Life makes things. "It's not a matter of heating, beating and treating of materials which we currently use to come up with new material and new processes," said Benyus. She claimed that this tried and true method produces new processes that results in 96 percent of waste. "Only four percent of this kind of process becomes usable."
By contrast, Life uses energy to add information into matter. By learning what that information is and mimicking it, new forms, processes and ecosystems can be produced. Benyus listed twelve "big ideas" that come from biology and that could be engineered for efficient hardware.
Some of these ideas are being investigated by various researchers already, but Benyus thinks her ideas could be used to provide the basis of 21st century engineering. Among these are self-assembly, already used at Sandia Labs to produce nanoparts by dipping structures into chemicals that can self-assembly. Other research self-assembles 2-D into 3-D structures at Whitesides Lab/ Harvard U. making electronic circuits in nano solder balls. Self-assembly is how nature reconstitutes itself.
"We can learn from the power of natural shapes by building fans that can be 50 percent more efficient," said Benuys. PaxScientific is one company already doing that.
Other ideas include natural selection as an innovation engine as when generic algorithms are applied to design. Nature's way at resiliency and healing can be mimicked when observing how organisms surrounded by bacteria in water keep themselves clean. Sensing and responding mechanisms can be applied in crash avoidance applications by observing how millions of locusts fly in their formation without interference.
"The bottom line is that life creates conditions that are conducive to Life", said Benuys. "Design accordingly to maintain life for the next generations."
Tom Daniel at the University of Washington integrates concepts of zoology, engineering and mathematics and studies the biomechanics of molecular motors in a variety of animals. At PopTech he said that much that can be applied to engineering from observing how the animal world moves. He uses computer programs and engineering models to understand the microscopic intricacies of how animals move to design better robots some day.
"We can build bio systems to acquire, store, process and disseminate information by researching the way motor signals work in the small world," said Daniel. He explained that one cell in the neural system of a tiny fruitfly consists of 40,000 neurons, each of which when triggering making 40,000 connections with another neuron. "We need to understand complex interactive systems, what I call computational biology--computing by and in biological systems."
"These are highly coupled systems with redundant and massive data flows that often exceed our accounting skills," said Daniel. "It's literally processing on the fly, excuse the pun!"
Understanding this world and applying it to ours can be overwhelming, said Daniel. He talked of his dilemma: the fairy fly, the smallest fly on the planet has a brain 7 micrometers in diameter with a cell count of 10 to the 14th. Researching the motor mechanism of such a complicated organism is "working at the stochastic state of ions".
"We need help from you wizards", Daniel called on his PopTech audience. One problem Daniel sees in today's research directions is that too many are involved in the microbiology sphere. "We are bringing in older professors on walkers to teach students about fish, mammals because it has become an obsolete course. We need to learn about the motor skills of animals from amebas to zebras and apply that for our needs."