Everybody Looking to Nature for Solutions

When I say I’m interested biology because I believe that looking to nature for fresh ideas in software and other technology design, most people look at me like I’m crazy – or even tell me bluntly that I am. But I’m not easily offended nor easily convinced that it’s me and not them that are crazy.

Browsing the media these days, I see more and more reports and news about companies and research institutes that are turning up with interesting results from exactly this mixture. This is especially true for the software industry, where much of today’s cutting edge seems to be biology inspired. Following are just a few examples of this wave of innovation and ideas.

Technology Review recently presented its annual list of TR100 [sorry subscription required], 100 young innovators that are defining tomorrow’s technologies. This year, the Tr100’s computing section holds 28 individuals, 16 of whom get the honors for projects inspired by or mimicking biology.

Technology Review identifies the trend and spends most of the preface to the computing category on it, for example:

    More and more biological processes are being understood by viewing them in terms of information processing. And computer models are increasingly helping biologists design new experiments and gain insights into the workings of complex biological systems. In turn, computer scientists are looking at living organisms as the ultimate models for new approaches in decentralized computing. All in all, its a cross-fertilization that was practically unheard of until a few years ago.

The TR100 projects include a computer security scheme that lends its methods from immune systems, programs that accurately simulate human bodies in action, an anti-spam program that draws from the consensus of its users and self assembling networks based of “smart dust”.

But this drive for a new approach in computing is not just a question of making something new, but also out of a need created by the complexity of today’s vast networks and self-organizing assemblage:

    Biology has taught researchers that software distributed across many machines that can teach itself the difference between benign activities and malicious attacks, for instance, may provide better security than centrally managed, hard-coded approaches. Information systems are getting too complex for humans to manage effectively, [Sana Security’s Steven] Hofmeyr says, so its important to build software that can learn and take care of itself.

Bill Joy, the colorful co-founder and former CTO of Sun Microsystems, hit a similar note in an interview with Fortune the day after he departed Sun:

    Nature deals with breakdowns in a complex system with evolution, and a very important part of evolution is the extinction of particular species. It’s a sort of backtracking mechanism that corrects an evolutionary mistake. The Internet is an ecology, so if you build a species on it that is vulnerable to a certain pathogen, it can very well undergo extinction. By the way, the species that go extinct tend to have limited genetic diversity.

    It may seem like a big effort to write programs several times, but not if you do it in a modular way. That’s because, if a program is built out of 20 modules and you write two versions of each, you’ve now got some enormous number of possible combinations. Then, if you test each combination to see how “fit” it is in some fitness landscape, you’re basically doing what evolution does.

    This is not something I thought of. People have been publishing papers about it for years. But the fact that the standard industry practice is to do none of this shows that software engineering as a discipline is in the Dark Ages compared with something like mechanical engineering. We shouldn’t really build servers or operating systems that are genetically inferior, but we do.

(btw. Joy claims that with “species that have limited genetic diversity” he’s not referring to the dominance of the Windows operating system – he may be smart, but not a good liar 🙂

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None of the abovementioned people claim that biology has all the answers, but that examining it provides inspiration, ideas for possible approach to problem solving and methodology that can be utilized in a different environment for different purposes. It’s not as if biology is “curing cancer these days” although, come to think of it, it actually might.

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Every week I see more and more of bio-inspired engineering in the media. It is no doubt partially because I’m paying close attention and that you people are pretty active sending me interesting links, but the trend is real and on the rise. On that note I will – starting next week – post a weekly entry to Wetware holding only links to news on bio-inspired and otherwise Wetware related issues gathered during the week.

So please keep posting me interesting news and articles that you find and might fit the Wetware Trendwatch.