April 28, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Insects Lead the Way

Why engineer things from scratch, when we can imitate nature?  Two recent examples come from the world of insects.  A press release from UC Berkeley begins, “Using the eyes of insects such as dragonflies and houseflies as models, a team of bioengineers at University of California, Berkeley, has created a series of artificial compound eyes.”  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)  Insect eyes use thousands of facets to get a wide field of view without distortion.  How can humans use this technology?  “Potential applications include surveillance; high-speed motion detection; environmental sensing; medical procedures, such as endoscopies and image-guided surgeries, that require cameras; and a number of clinical treatments that can be controlled by implanted light delivery devices.”  Anyone who has missed swatting a fly knows that the insects have these first three applications down pat.  The authors published their work in Science this week.1
    Human committees have a hard time arriving at a consensus about what is the best solution to a problem.  Maybe they should learn from bees.  Ten thousand of them swarming chaotically somehow converge quickly on a solution to the problem of the best location for a new hive.  A press release from Cornell University says that “they have a unique method of deciding which site is right: With great efficiency they narrow down the options and minimize bad decisions.”  How?  By coalition building till a quorum develops, the article explains.  The scientists found that bees use their famous “waggle dance” not only when shopping for food, but when scouting for real estate.  The researchers watched 4,000 scouts report back to the hive from various directions.  The superior site usually was not the first one chosen.  In a 16-hour process, the swarm came to agreement and found the best solution.  “This is a striking example of decision making by an animal group that is complicated enough to rival the dealings of any department committee,”  said Thomas Seeley, Cornell biologist.  What can managers take home from this nature lesson?  Include an open forum of ideas, and employ frank discussions and friendly competition.  This quorum-setting method of aggregating independent opinions might help “achieve collective intelligence and thus avoid collective folly.”


1Jeong et al., “Biologically Inspired Artificial Compound Eyes,” Science, 28 April 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5773, pp. 557 – 561, DOI: 10.1126/science.1123053.

Funny, honey; none of these articles mentioned evolution, but they seemed to have no problem using the word design.

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