March 28, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Plagiarizing Nature

Copying someone else’s invention is a crime, but researchers in biomimetics are doing it with impunity and getting away with it.

  1. Leaf power:  “Why come up with new ways to generate clean energy, when we can copy what plants have been doing for millennia?”  That’s what led Daniel Nocera and colleagues at MIT to develop artificial leaves that try to mimic photosynthesis.  According to New Scientist, “His company, Sun Catalytix, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is attempting to commercialise the artificial photosynthesis technology.”  But what if a student said, “Why come up with a new term paper, when I can copy what graduate students already have published online?”
        Science Daily quoted Nocera saying “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades.”  His artificial leaf is “made of inexpensive materials that are widely available, works under simple conditions and is highly stable,” the article said.  Sounds like natural leaves have those benefits nailed already.  “In laboratory studies, he showed that an artificial leaf prototype could operate continuously for at least 45 hours without a drop in activity.”  Natural leaves last much longer than that.
        Nocera hopes his plagiarism might power poor third-world homes far from electrical power grids.  “Our goal is to make each home its own power station,” he said.  Unlike plant leaves, though, the invention only splits water into hydrogen and oxygen; it does not make sugar and food.
  2. Bird mimic:  If you see SmartBird flying around, “it’s actually an energy-efficient robot, weighing just 500 grams, that captures the elegance of a bird in flight,” reported New Scientist.  The article includes a video clip of the robot that looks remarkably lifelike, shape, wings and all, though it does not lay eggs, snatch fish out of the sea, or sing; it also needs ground controllers to guide it.  It was made by Festo, a company also guilty of plagiarizing penguins and elephants.
  3. Bee strategy:  Bees and ants survey their surroundings with a search strategy called quorum sensing.  According to PhysOrg, Aron Kisdi, a University of Southampton engineer, proposed using a swarm of 40 to 60 robots on Mars to search like honeybees.  “Bees will leave the nest, gather information, and determine the best new location” by working in swarms.  Kisdi thinks this is a good strategy for robots on Mars.  They would explore caves and other things, then return by the shortest route, like bees do.  Unlike current all-in-one rovers, the robot swarm could survive the loss of individual robots.  The article includes a video clip of Kisdi’s rolling, jumping robot called the Jollbot.
  4. DNA bot:  At the University of Oxford, they’re plagiarizing DNA to build tiny robots.  Live Science caught the plagiarists in action: “The thinking behind scientists’ interest in super-small DNA bots is that in order to replicate some amazing abilities in nature, one must go very small.”  Even more shocking, they are using intelligent design: “‘Information is programmed into the design of the base sequences of the DNA strands,’ [Andrew] Turberfield said.”

In Science March 18, Marc Lavine reviewed a recent book on biomimetics edited by Robert Allen with the amusing title Bulletproof Feathers: How Science Uses Nature’s Secrets to Design Cutting-Edge Technology (University of Chicago Press, 2010).  He began,

Where does the inspiration for something new originate?  For scientists and engineers, sometimes it appears in the cross-fertilization of known concepts from diverse fields or the rare flash of a new idea, but more often it comes from leveraging what is already known by building on things that work well.  Increasingly, researchers are turning to nature for inspiration, by looking to organisms that do things we are unable to do on our own or do them better than we can—often functioning with an economical use of limited resources and energy.  Animals that fly, explore deep under water, can see without light, or even stick to glass walls are all being studied with the hope of developing new materials, structures, or devices that may enhance our everyday lives.

He spoke of bioinspiration and biomimicry as hot areas of research – using nature as a starting point for solving problems of interest to technology.  The book includes six illustrated chapters by leaders in biomimetic research, who talk about marine organisms that inform sonar and underwater sensing technologies, glass sponges that use fiber optics, and deep-sea fish that guide submarine builders with ways to overcome pressure and darkness.
    Even humans provide inspiration for inventors.  Should robots look human?  Industrial robots, or those that enter hazardous environments, need not resemble us, but there is a growing market for robots that can empathize with the disabled, the elderly, and children.  Achieving realistic robotic servants will require work in compact energy sources, artificial muscles and lifelike materials.

Biomimetic engineers have already learned a lot from nature, and no doubt the further study of organisms and their often surprising capabilities will suggest, for example, new ways to design materials, to create imaging and communication techniques, and to build stronger or more aerodynamic structures.  The inspiration comes from observing what is normal for the organisms and wondering how they function and how we might mimic key features or superior properties.

Lavine ended with praise for the book’s photographs: “Browsing through it, readers will encounter natural mechanisms that have stimulated researchers looking for new ideas,” he said; and with an appeal to young investigators, added, “That may be as good a way as any to find your own inspirations and scientific connections.”

1.  Marc Lavine, “Engineering: Living Inspired,” Science, 18 March 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6023 p. 1389, DOI: 10.1126/science.1192323.

The nerve of these people.  The Inventor should sue!  Stealing intellectual property and making money off it – how dare they?  A judge should throw the book at them – oh, wait – the Judge of all the universe is already seated.  Actually, He delights in the beings He created, and into whom He placed his image, exercising their creativity.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is said.
    What is missing, though, is proper referencing of the source.  It would be like visitors to Kitty Hawk admiring the plane in detail and trying to copy it without ever mentioning the Wright Brothers.  As Paul explained in Romans 1, the evidence for design is clear, but without excuse, men do not glorify God as God, neither are thankful (Romans 1:18-22).  It’s understandable that the wrath of God is against those who plagiarize his work, using their own intelligent design, but suppress the truth by claiming the superior designs in nature just happened by evolution.
    For those who are thankful and acknowledge God as Creator, this is a wonderful time to get into science.  Home school parents and Christian school parents should get their precocious youngsters who like science on a fast track into biomimetics research.  Young scientists can do it without any Darwin worship, and if they succeed, they will not only show the value of design-based science, but make the world a better place.  That’s not plagiarism; that is wagering to be a major player in 21st-century science.

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