February 26, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Life Leads the Way to Invention

Here’s a factoid for the party: a cell is 10,000 times more energy-efficient than a transistor.  PhysOrg tells us that “ In one second, a cell performs about 10 million energy-consuming chemical reactions, which altogether require about one picowatt (one millionth millionth of a watt) of power.”  This and other amazing facts lead to an obvious conclusion: inventors ought to look to life for ideas. 

  1. Cell-inspired electronics:  The PhysOrg article, based on a press release from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells how “MIT’s Rahul Sarpeshkar is now applying architectural principles from these ultra-energy-efficient cells to the design of low-power, highly parallel, hybrid analog-digital electronic circuits.”  He calls this “cytomorphic” electronics – design inspired by cells.  Think computers are reaching the pinnacle of their efficiency?  Think again:

    Essentially, cells may be viewed as circuits that use molecules, ions, proteins and DNA instead of electrons and transistors.  That analogy suggests that it should be possible to build electronic chips – what Sarpeshkar calls “cellular chemical computers” – that mimic chemical reactions very efficiently and on a very fast timescale.

    . Notice that the design imitates the architecture and the interaction strategies, not the materials.  This is good news; it means that Moore’s Law has not approached the limit, and that smaller, greener, ultra-fast supercomputers could be in everyone’s future – thanks to the living cell.

  2. Bio-inspired networks:  A related story on PhysOrg reported that European researchers are trying to build bio-inspired networks to form distributed computers.  “Powerful computers made up of physically separate modules, self-organising networks, and computing inspired by biological systems are three hot research topics coming together in one European project,” the article began.  Modular elements called ubidules can explore their environment and share information with other agents.  These form a network of self-organizing networks that can help solve “scientific problems in which complexity arises from simple building blocks, such as in brains, stock markets, and the spread of new ideas.”  Modeling the complex neural networks of the brain is one example.  Another is the foraging problem: how to get distributed agents to a collection point.  A set of robots with colored beacons can converge on the solution using the distributed agent algorithms.
        Even humans can provide biological inspiration.  Computer programmers and robot designers study how social networks act as collections of agents that can learn and share to solve problems: “as in an unfamiliar shopping mall where you might locate a particular store by following a trail of people carrying distinctive plastic bags.”  Social networks also exhibit emergent self-organizational effects due to the ability of individuals to learn, share and communicate.  The challenge, then, is to make robots and computers that model the collective problem-solving ability of intelligent agents able to communicate their ideas and learn from one another.
  3. See turtle run:  An amazing race happens at night on some beaches.  Baby sea turtles hatch from under the sand, and race to the water.  “Life can be scary for endangered loggerhead sea turtles immediately after they hatch,” reported Science Daily.  “After climbing out of their underground nest, the baby turtles must quickly traverse a variety of terrains for several hundred feet to reach the ocean.”  Fortunately, they are well equipped for their journey.  They have specially-designed flippers that provide “excellent mobility over dune grass, rigid obstacles and sand of varying compaction and moisture content.”  It’s so good, in fact, that researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are envisioning how to “build robots that can travel across complex environments.”  They built an artificial flipper to measure the stresses and strains as it pushes on sand.  Somehow, the newly-hatched turtles, who have never run the race before, know how to maintain a “balance between high speed, which requires large inertial forces, and the potential for failure through fluidization of the sand.”
        Robot designers, instead of having to calculate the number of appendages to traverse complex surfaces, could save a lot of time by imitating how these baby turtles do it.  They could “just design a robot with a flat mitt and a claw like these turtles have,” the researchers concluded.  Speaking of loggerhead sea turtles, Science Daily reported on efforts to reduce accidental captures of the endangered species.  Spanish scientists are working on rules for fisherman that can reduce the turtles getting snagged in nets – a problem that not only hurts the 20,000 turtles that are accidentally caught each year, but also hurts the fisherman who must spend time freeing and releasing them.
  4. How to trap radioactivity:  To grab radioactive ions, make like a Venus flytrap.  That’s how PhysOrg said scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are strategizing.  They are designing chemical traps that snap shut on wandering ions, to sequester them and decontaminate areas of radioactive pollution.  To be successful, the strategy needs the discriminating abilities of the plant.  “Imagine the framework like a Venus flytrap,” one of the inventors said.  “When the plant jaws are open, you can drop a pebble in and the plant won’t close—it knows it isn’t food.  When a fly enters, however, the plant’s jaws snap shut.”  Experiments showed that metal sulfides with a negative charge show promise for trapping radioactive cesium ions.  “As far as we know, this Venus-flytrap process is unique,” he said.  “It also works over a large range of acidities—an essential property for cleanup at different sites around the world, where pH can range considerably.”  The article is adorned with pictures of the Venus flytrap to show how the molecular trap imitates its botanical inspiration.

Some of the most dynamic and productive areas of scientific research today take their inspiration from the living world.  We should reverse the old General Electric slogan: not “we bring good things to life,” but “life brings good things to us.”

Intelligent design should claim these initiatives.  Usually, there is no mention of evolution in the reports, and when it is mentioned, it is a useless appendage with no explanatory power or direction.  When you approach an observable function in nature – an adaptive flipper, an efficient network – you can imitate it on the assumption that its design, structure, and architecture were designed.  Then you design inventions to imitate that design.  Instead of the GIGO (garbage-in, garbage-out) algorithm of Darwinism, biomimetics works on the DIDO (design-in, design-out) principle.  It’s important that the D in DIDO be design, not Darwin, or else you get irrational results (see 04/26/2008 commentary).

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