“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” Lyall Watson
Summer time! For me it means working on bio-inspired algorithms, one in particular I’ve been spending some time on is Artificial Neural Networking (ANN). This had me asking my sister (who is working on her PhD in neuroscience) about how synapses, pathways, etc. work. This post will be on how ANN was inspired and some of the materials I found interesting on it. Let’s start with the obsession with neural network and why it matters? Machines do complicated mathematical calculations in a matter of seconds, yet they have difficulty performing some easy tasks such as recognizing faces, understanding and speaking in local languages, passing theTurning test. OK, let’s compare machines to our brain: A single transistor in your home computer is quite fast; only limited by speed of light and the physical distance to propagate a signal. A signal(Ions) in the neuron, on the other hand, propagates on a fraction of the speed (Flake, 1999). This begs the question, which is better? A good comparison can be found here. One main fact is that our brain makes use of a massive parallelism; it’s this massive interaction between axons and dendrites that contribute to how our brain works. Many argue that the comparison to computers is not very useful as they work differently from each other. Can we make a digital reconstruction of human brain? I follow Blue Brain project for this. Hence, as you can guess ANN algorithm is a simple imitation of how our neurons work. It works by feed forward and back propagations to learn patterns. Originally proposed as McCulloch-Putts neuron in the 1940s and 1980s by invention of Hopfield-Tank feedback neuron network. The 1960s had an good optimistic start on neural networks with the work of Frank Rosenblatt’s perceptron (a pattern classification device). However, by 1969 there was a decline in this research and publication of Perceptrons by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert caused it to almost die off. Minsky and Papert showed how a single perceptron was insufficient with any learning algorithm by giving it mathematical proofs. It took a while and many independent works till the value of Neural Networking came to light again. One main contribution is the two-volume book titled Parallel Distributed Processing by James L. McClelland and David E. Rumelhart and their collaborators. In this work, they changed the proposed unit step function proposed to a smooth sigmoid function and added a backward error signal propagation using weights of some hidden neurons called back propagation (Flake, 1999). Reading through chapter 20 of Parallel Distributed Processing written by F. Crick and C. Asanuma, I read about physiology and anatomy of the cerebral cortex. It shows different neural profiles.
It talks about different layers in the cortex such as the superficial, upper, middle, and deep layer, axons, synapses, neurotransmitters. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate the complexity of our brain and wonder about the simplicity of Artificial Neural Network algorithms, and can’t help but feel amazed by what Blue Brain Project is aiming to do.
Like a house-cat exploring its environment, lets dive into narrow unexplored places…
Flake, G. W. The computational beauty of nature, 1999
McClelland, J. L. Rumelhart, D. E. Parallel distributed processing, Volume 2. Psychological and biological models, 1989
Last week I had the pleasure to submerge myself in the rainy, flat, yet beautiful landscapes of the Netherlands.
Dunes of Loon and Drunen National Park, Netherlands
Together with about 25 others we spend a week to learn more about how Biomimicry Thinking can be applied to Social Innovation, a workshop given by Toby Herzlich and Dayna Baumeister. My personal interest in entrepreneurship made me question: “What can we learn from nature about being an entrepreneur?”
Yes, nature has entrepreneurs too, they are called pioneer species. Fireweed, a pink flower that appears as first after a huge forest fire, is one example. They are the species that are the first colonizers of harsh environments and are the drivers for ecological successions that ultimately lead to a more biodiverse and stable ecosystem.
1. You should not strive for a perfectly balanced Work/Life
Almost daily a new article appears in which tips are exposed to obtain a healthy work/life balance. Well, if we follow nature’s advice, we could keep trying to find it, but in nature there is no such thing as a “balanced” state. Although the overall appearance might seem in balance, the truth is that this is the result of a “dynamic non-equilibrium” or a constant flow of states to come as close as possible to equilibrium. One of the main reasons: (natural) disturbances will occur, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.
So, what is the best way to cope with this “stress” of having to deal with (unexpected) disturbances that throw you in unbalance? One is most resilient when being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist”; or in other words: don’t try to be extremely good at one specific thing.
Translating this to ourselves: If work becomes so dominant that you develop your personal skills almost only in your field of work (e.g. becoming extremely productive at managing your work, or being an uber smart coder — usually “hard” skills), you will have a very hard time to enjoy your non-work life (e.g. spending a relax time with your family — usually “soft” skills). Nature’s advice is to develop both your hard and soft skills so that you more easily can adapt to either your work-self or your life-self.
By the way: just the fact that we call them “work” and “life” is already a sign that something is totally wrong. You should be alive at work.
2. As a pioneer you usually grow fast and die young
Perhaps the most shocking news from nature: as a pioneer you only have a very temporary role to play. You are the one to appear as first since you are able to withstand those harsh conditions that others can’t. You can withstand the hard winds, the low nutritious soil, or the high currents. Even better, you thrive in them, making you grow fast and reproduce in high amounts. Together with your peers of pioneers you will change the conditions of your environment, you are making them more accessible for others to come and stay. But as soon as they have arrived, your role is to leave space for them, and find a new, underdeveloped area.
Seems like there is a good reason why you see so many serial entrepreneurs. If you are good at seeing new business opportunities and making them viable, perhaps your role should be just that. Why stay at one place and try to compete with the next generation (e.g. managers, CEO’s)? Can you accept that others are better at growing your business idea?
If so, you might have found your best talent and will enjoy to plant many new seeds and let them be grown by others.
3. Your pioneering role is to create conditions for the next generation
As a pioneer you are the first to colonize, but you are not there to stay. Being able to thrive in harsh conditions your job is to fix the sand or soil, to make nutrients more accessible, to enrich the soil, to create shelters from hard winds, etc. Suddenly other species will find out that the harsh conditions changed, and became viable to them. They will start settling and as they are better in other things than you, for example they need less resources or they are better at making friends (called mutualistic relationships in nature), they will take over. The end stage of ecological successions is a stable, biodiverse ecosystem, like the redwood forest and coral reefs.
Change in nature is accepted as a good thing.
4. You have two different ways to impact your environment
Apparently there are two ways a pioneer can change its environment:
i) change the environment directly; e.g. a beaver that builds dams will cause changes in the river flow,
ii) change itself, which indirectly affects the environment; e.g. coral needs CO2 to grow, taking it from the sea water thus creating a CO2-poor environment around the corals.
How can we apply this to ourselves?
As an entrepreneur you can introduce a new product into the world, which creates an entire new market. Think cars, mobile industry, and computers.
Or you can change yourself, affecting your environment. Examples that come to mind are: Not believing that the world is flat, literally throw our world upside-down. Or the fact that industry is now becoming more and more circular thanks to those thought-leaders that couldn’t accept our linear thinking and realized that “waste” doesn’t exist.
In both cases, what you are doing is preparing the environment to attract followers that usually will take over and be the ones to make the actual long-lasting change. If your startup doesn’t make it into a real company, that doesn’t mean you failed. On the contrary: you set a new stage for others that are perhaps better at running a big company, but you sure made a difference!
5. You should know what kind of messages you are sending and to whom
You come home after a long day, are hangry and your partner is in the sofa watching a TV show. You mumble to yourself “pfff why haven’t you made dinner yet!” and start cooking with a grumpy face. After 10 mins you are so angry and yell, “HEY, I’m home! Why haven’t you made dinner yet? I’m starving!”. Your partner stands up from the sofa, and says: “I made dinner for us, it’s in the oven and the table is set outside.”
Familiar? What happens is that you are sending messages that aren’t perceived by the other. Although you might think your partner heard you mumbling, he probably hasn’t. As he is watching an interesting TV show he didn’t even noticed that you were so hungry. He already knew dinner would be ready in 15 min but didn’t realize he should have told you.
There are many great examples in nature where a specific message is perfectly aligned between the sender and the receiver. Flowers not only send out a yummy smell to attract bees, they also have a beautiful UV pattern that shows them the way to their nectar. We as humans don’t see UV so these patterns/message would be totally useless if it were to guide us.
Next time your message isn’t being acted upon, ask yourself: “Who is my receiver, and which message is the most clear for them to understand what I need?”
Further Readings — Inspiring books
- The Nature of Business: Redesigning for Resilience — Giles Hutchins
- Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature — Janine Benyus
- Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World— Brian Walker PhD
- Business Ecology: Giving your Organization the Natural Edge — Joseph M Abe
- All I Need To Know About Business, I Learned From a Duck — Tom Porter
This post was originally posted on Medium.com
Two weeks to finishing my first academic year, I’m feeling inspired to talk about our course on developing a product using biomimicry; Michael introduced it here. For this course, we worked with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Nottingham Spirk. Nottingham Spirk (NS) gave us the problem and some deadlines. Milestones we had were for coming up with areas we’d like to target, developing the concepts, and finally refining our product designs.
What is the first step to go from biology to a product or vice versa? It was a bit messy for me, considering I am also still learning about many biological organisms, but I am pleased with our results and the progress we made.
First, we worked on our target audience, drawing mind maps of stakeholders and key opportunities. We divided into subgroups based on our interest in particular key opportunity areas. There was only one condition: having almost an equal number of Biomimicry Fellows from University of Akron biomimicry and designers from the Cleveland Institute of Art on every team.
And then we started… Not sure how to go about it, we looked at current products, specific issues within our key opportunity area, as well as asknature.org, other books and papers on animal’s adaptaptions. By end of February, we were ready to give a report to NS about the issues we were targeting and organisms that could potentially help us and got their feedback.
Our next step was to develop concepts by end of March. Here, we needed to read more and actually think of a specific problem and solution. I would say, while researching current market, it was not difficult to see where we can introduce new products and what’s missing. The more challenging part was abstracting ideas from biology. We had a format to follow similar to asknature.org: it included writing first the abstracted function, then the strategy the model organism uses and finally extracting design principles. This time NS were more specific on which ideas they were interested in having us pursue and which they were not. Then it was time to form new groups based on the latest product ideas we were moving forward with. Now, for our final work, my team focused on one specific product and our concept looked to many organisms (from ducks to rabbits) for inspiration. Our final report is today. yay!
Couple of things I learned:
– It was wonderful to work in groups of various specialties (mine included industrial designer, polymer scientist, product designer and me)
– Drawing/talking about ideas helped in better grasping the biological function.
– When there is no actual structure to follow, the flexibility lends to creativity.
– Having many groups, it was interesting to see what each team has come up with and inspirations are endless.
– Designers are great in making an idea come alive and look appealing!
– There are many complicated texts in biology for non-biologists, but, knowing what function you’d like to learn about makes it much easier to research and pictures do speak 1000 words.
– I’m more excited today than when I joined the biomimicry degree.
Till next time, Happy Biomimicking!
Thanks for checking out our blog! My name is Derek Miller, and I’m going to be working with the MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland on integrating biomimicry into education. This is my first post here, and I’m excited to be a part of this amazing group! My interests revolve around biology, as well as the arts, so it’s my goal to add a designer and artist’s perspective on biomimicry. If you wish to know more about me, feel free to check out my Contributor Bios page.
Art, in a very broad perspective, is a type of reaction to the human experience, both of the artist and ultimately of all mankind. The artist interprets the things he/she has discovered and experienced, and puts them in a different form. Through this process, the natural world provides a great source of inspiration and the most abundant collection of reference material. Some of the oldest art in cave paintings is drawn as a response the world around us, so it’s no surprise that discoveries in science have played a major role in the subject matter of many art styles. One of the most prominent of these styles is that of Art Nouveau, dating from around 1890-1910. First landing major recognition at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, this versatile style called out to many forms of media from architecture and sculpture to painting and decorative arts. Ornamental pattern played a significant role in Art Nouveau design, drawing from biological forms in microscopy and botany. Other sciences that influenced Art Nouveau included neurology, zoology, psychology, and the theory of evolution, along with many other scientific breakthroughs within the 19th century. One of such is the revolutionary breakthrough made by Louis Pasteur in 1860 when he observed that microorganisms were the cause of infectious diseases. This new technology led to the establishment of cell theory. This theory, introduced by German scientists, Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann between 1838-1839, stated that all organic life was made up of the same basic unit, giving all living things a degree of connectedness that became a major theme within the Art Nouveau philosophy. Use of the microscope, a new way to look at the world, allowed artists to create abstract interpretations of microscopic forms such as cells, bacteria, and so on. An example of this can be found in the work of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Haeckel was a zoologist that reported the findings of the Challenger Expedition (1873-1876), and is well known for his stylistic illustrations of the single-cell species of protozoa called Radiolaria. An example of this can be seen in Figure 1. Unfortunately, though well received by the public and the Art Nouveau movement, Haeckel was oftentimes ridiculed by the scientific community for his artistic freedom with his illustrations. Continue reading
Delving into literature for design inspired by nature, one encounters many different words describing different processes. When I had begun writing this, I expected to be able to easily determine the differences between the words in the literature so that I could provide clear definitions in this post. However, complicated systems cannot be accurately boiled down into one facet to provide a clear and simple definition. This is true in both defining and practicing biomimicry. If anything, this is the most important lesson I learned in trying to define the terms below. The striking issue I came across, is that the word biomimicry seemed to be used in two different ways, which is a little confusing. In this post I hope to provide a possible resolution to eliminate the confusion surrounding the word biomimicry. I also tried to produce adequate definitions below to the many other terms associated with the field, so if you are not familiar with the terms, perhaps you can learn something. After I define the terms, I will discuss in more detail the overall picture that I see.
Biomimicry – Biomimicry really has two definitions: general and specific. The general is the umbrella term for using natural inspiration to innovate new designs, whether tangible (such as spider silk inspired materials) or intangible (such as swarm intelligence inspired business structures). The specific term describes the practice of utilizing the “Life’s Principles” as defined by the organization Biomimicry 3.8, most notably sustainability.1-2 An example of the more specific type of biomimicry is the Land Institute, as highlighted in Janine Benyus’s book. The Land Institute considers the plant growth of grasslands (the local system) to create sustainable agriculture.3
Biomimetics – This term stems from the same root words as biomimicry, but is used more in the engineering and technology spheres. For instance, the Aizenberg group at Harvard refers to themselves as the Biomineralization and Biomimetics lab.4 Biomimetics does not depend on the life’s principles as set forth by Biomimicry 3.8, but studies natural systems with varying degrees of systems thinking. Natural processes and functions are examined to understand the underlying aspects. Using this knowledge, synthetic systems are produced which hopefully have similar functions.
Bio-inspired design – The inspiration from nature with respect to a particular function or form. An understanding of the entire system is not necessarily required as long as the technology developed from the idea is improved in some fashion. An example of this is Velcro. To me, bio-inspired design is usually a part of biomimetics, but also falls under the general definition of biomimicry. What makes bio-inspired design its own from the other fields is its particular emphasis on simplifying the natural system into one particular function, such as the kingfisher bird inspired bullet train. The aerodynamics of the beak were really the only important factor necessary from the natural system.
Bioutilization – Integrating natural materials which provide some desired function into design. The easiest example of this is using wool for clothing. The wool provides protection from the elements for the sheep, and provides that same function in clothing. Bioutilization, in a sense, still creates functions in technologies from nature’s designs. A similar term, but subset of bioutilization is bio-assistance. In this case, the organism is domesticated in order to harvest a desired material.5
Biotechnology – ”[Harnessing] cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet.”6
Each of the terms I defined above has the same overall goal (inspiration from nature), so it would be wise to create a unified word, which may facilitate discussion about the topic of inspiration from nature. This is one place we could apply the general definition of biomimicry. The worry I have in the multiple definitions of biomimicry is that the connotations of sustainability may fall upon designed systems which do not contain sustainability as an aspect. I think connecting all of the fields with a different general word other than biomimicry would provide an overall term which can be used to cover all of the different methods. Perhaps, I think using the term bioinspiration, as used by Dr. Whitesides in his recent review7, will help to provide an overall term. The use of a general term will help clear up the definition of the word biomimicry to eliminate this general/specific focus, and give people a word to describe the entire field of inspiration from nature. That way, when discussing biomimicry, we can keep sustainability embedded within it, and eliminate misunderstandings.
 Whitesides GM. 2015 Bioinspiration: something for everyone. Interface Focus 5: 20150031. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2015.0031
Having access to information about mechanistic and behavioral strategies of organisms is crucial for Biomimicry. Currently about 1.7 million species have been identified, however, that’s only a small fraction of the about 30 million species estimated to be living on earth. Even for biologists it is a hard task to abstract usable strategies to inform biomimetic designs, so for non-biologist this can become a real hurdle. Therefore, several tools have been developed to assist in ideation. Many good reviews have been published on this topic, also see the list of resources I put together a while ago.
The existence of tools doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be improved, updated and optimized. Especially with a growing understanding of biological strategies and new species being discovered, biological databases are ever-evolving tools. Recently I read “A scalable approach for ideation in biologically inspired design,” a paper presenting an automated classification approach that eliminates the time consuming task of classifying biological strategies. They are proposing that this will assist in more rapid growth of AskNature – a free to use, online bioinspiration tool that uses the Biomimicry Taxonomy to structure its database.
I decided to blog about this paper not only because the authors are researchers from Belgium (yes, I’m a little patriotic here) but also because their efforts are crucial for the further development of tools that support successful practice of biomimicry. I’m hoping that by spreading the word about their classification algorithm we can promote its further development and integration into AskNature.
Another important challenge for databases like AskNature is the limited input of biological strategies. I have to be honest, I haven’t contributed myself, yet – but after reading this paper I made myself the promise that whenever I’m reading about this super cool organism, I will check if it’s included in AskNature, and if not, I’ll contribute a page on it. All of us are reading and hearing about many inspiring examples as we practice biomimicry, so as a community of practitioners we should all work collaboratively and contribute to the growth of AskNature.
As a matter of fact, I just learned caterpillars have about 4000 muscles, while humans only have 63. I’m doing more research on the caterpillar’s musculature and how it is used before adding a page to AskNature, but I think the large number of muscles is required for caterpillars to achieve their unique wave-like motion. I can see how this could inspire new ways of robot locomotion, for example.
Cheers to collaboration across disciplines and around the globe!
Vandevenne, Dennis, et al. “A scalable approach for ideation in biologically inspired design.” Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing 29.01 (2015): 19-31.