January 21, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Has Biomimetics Surpassed Biology?

An article on Science Daily announced an invention that is “Better Than the Human Eye: Tiny Camera With Adjustable Zoom Could Aid Endoscopic Imaging, Robotics, Night Vision.”  While true that human eyes do not have zoom lenses, how does the comparison hold up?
    The invention both imitates and surpasses human vision in some respects: “Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are the first to develop a curvilinear camera, much like the human eye, with the significant feature of a zoom capability, unlike the human eye.”  They even call it an “eyeball camera.”  PhysOrg shows a picture of the device, which “has a 3.5x optical zoom, takes sharp images and is only the size of a nickel.”
    Previous research by this team, who had “drawn inspiration from animals,” had shown the optical benefits of curved photodetector arrays (08/07/2008).  This time they have upped the ante by controlling the curvature with hydraulics.  Both the simple lens and the photodetector array can have their curvature adjusted by water pressure, allowing for variable zoom.  “We were inspired by the human eye, but we wanted to go beyond the human eye,” said Yonggang Huang at Northwestern.  “Our goal was to develop something simple that can zoom and capture good images, and we’ve achieved that.”
    Does the original paper boast about this being an improvement over the eyeball?  In PNAS,1 Jung et al began by saying, “Mammalian eyes provide the biological inspiration for hemispherical cameras, where Petzval-matched curvature in the photodetector array can dramatically simplify lens design without degrading the field of view, focal area, illumination uniformity, or image quality.”  Camera makers have already gone beyond nature by inventing zoom lenses: “Interestingly, biology and evolution2 do not provide guides for achieving the sort of large-range, adjustable zoom capabilities that are widely available in man-made cameras.”
    The authors took note of two cases in biology where animals have a kind of binary zoom: (1) “in avian vision, where shallow pits in the retina lead to images with two fixed levels of zoom (50% high magnification in the center of the center of the field of view),” and (2) “imaging properties occur, but in an irreversible fashion, during metamorphosis in amphibian vision to accommodate transitions from aquatic to terrestrial environments.”  (Recall a related capability in cormorant eyes, 05/24/2004).  The “eyeball camera,” however, unlike animal eyes, would be capable of continuous zoom.
    The new invention is admittedly simple.  Its resolution is only 16 x 16 pixels, compared to the human retina’s resolution of 126 megapixels (100 million rods 07/13/2001 and 6-7 million cones).  So as interesting as their device is, there is a huge disparity between what they achieved and what we take for granted with human vision (by almost six orders of magnitude in resolution and probably a similar amount in light-gathering power).  It is, however, an important proof of concept: “Although the fill factor and total pixel count in the reported designs are moderate, there is nothing fundamental about the process that prevents significant improvements,” they concluded.  The concepts they have demonstrated in this prototype “might be useful to explore.

1.  Jung et al, “Dynamically tunable hemispherical electronic eye camera system with adjustable zoom capability,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print January 18, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015440108.
2.  This was the only mention of evolution in the paper.

More power to this team and to all inventors inspired by biology.  Even if they succeed in improving on the eye some day, they will have supported intelligent design through and through.  Reverse engineering pays a compliment to the designer of what is being imitated.  In spite of their passing reference to evolution, their work has absolutely nothing to do with Darwin – you know, the old storyteller who got cold shudders thinking of the design of the human eye – and that was without knowing about its ideal optics (05/09/2002), waveguides (05/07/2010), clean-up crews (08/28/2003), image processing (05/22/2003), and much, much more.  “Biology and evolution do not provide guides,” they said.  Of course not; evolution is unguided.  It would be the blind leading the blind, so ditch the thought.
    Human ingenuity can and does exceed biology all the time.  No animals explore space, or resolve distant quasars, or image the molecular motors in their own cells with X-ray diffraction.  God gave humans the minds and hands to expand their biological capabilities.  If scientists can invent eyeball-mimic cameras with zoom lenses, all for the good.  If they can get them to take high-def 3-D video at 126 megapixel resolution, repair themselves, reproduce themselves and run on potatoes, then we might consider them starting to come a little closer to a few of the engineering specs of the One who made “the seeing eye” (Proverbs 20:12).  Even such devices, though, would be useless without an even more complex brain to interpret them and to understand what it is they are seeing.  Let’s not be numbered among those who, having eyes, do not see (Mark 8:18).

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