Scientists take cues from nature to solve modern tech mysteries
EXCERPT: On his Web site, William Dembski, a leading activist for the intelligent-design movement, cattily dissected the Georgia Tech center. “Here’s how it works: we find some amazing system in the biological realm, determine how to reverse engineer it, and then design and build a parallel system to serve our needs. But of course, the original system evolved by blind trial-and-error tinkering … To think that it was actually designed because we had to design its human counterpart is just plain stupid.”
ATLANTA – One of the greatest challenges for robotics engineers is building a machine that actually walks like one of us. Capturing the organized fall that allows humans to get around rather gracefully has, in most cases, come off as – well – rather robotic.
Scientists in the rapidly maturing field of biologically-inspired design believe in turning to organic processes and embracing biological principles to solve such scientific stumpers. They argue that technology can learn much from the world’s most rigorous process: Evolution.
“If you think of organisms as products, all the bad ones have been recalled. Those that have survived evolved over millions of years,” said Marc Weissburg, a biology professor and co-director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design.
Man has always looked to nature for its inspiration, capturing the sun to create fire and copying birds to achieve flight. But in the last 30 years, that tendency has been honed into a scientific field that is enjoying a growing number of devotees.
Two centers dedicated to the field have opened up within the last year, one at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and another at the University of California, Berkeley. And last month, dozens of researchers in the field gathered in Atlanta to share their experiments, in what observers said was an encouraging sign of its coming of age.
A range of projects probing rat whiskers, fish jaws and worm brains made up a Noah’s Ark-sized display of the innovations the field could yield.
“It really captures the imagination to show how much better organisms are at doing things,” Weissburg said. “The natural world doesn’t waste energy, accumulate a large amount of toxins or produce more materials than it uses.”
Weissburg’s pet project shines a blinding green laser into a pool of water to track how a blue crab still manages to scamper down a piece of shrimp in 15 seconds even without its sight.
Fellow professor Hang Lu is delving into the sensors of common worms to learn how to develop sensitive sensors that can one day distinguish smell. Eventually, she said, the technology could be used to track plumes of smoke from miles away and distinguish what is burning.
German scientist Rolf Muller, who teaches at China’s Shandong University, says his investigation of bat ears could improve sonar technology. And Robert Full, a Berkeley researcher, is trying to learn the stability principles that keep six-legged insects, eight-legged crabs and four-legged dogs upright.
The field has enjoyed a few recent popular successes, including cleaning products and paints that try to capture the makeup of Lotus plants that prevents water from sticking to the leaf’s surface, effectively repelling dirt and contaminants.
Velcro, another example, was inspired by burrs that stuck to a dog’s fur after a walk through brush. And the Wright brothers modeled the first working airplane after the structure of a bird’s wings.
While the rehashing of those breakthroughs have become well-known among the scientific community, alarming skeptics who say the relative dearth of discoveries and the staggering cost to develop them isn’t worth the final product.
The field also faces a theological clash with intelligent-design backers who scoff that scientists are revering a system that’s so complex that it had to be engineered by a higher power.
On his Web site, William Dembski, a leading activist for the intelligent-design movement, cattily dissected the Georgia Tech center.
“Here’s how it works: we find some amazing system in the biological realm, determine how to reverse engineer it, and then design and build a parallel system to serve our needs. But of course, the original system evolved by blind trial-and-error tinkering … To think that it was actually designed because we had to design its human counterpart is just plain stupid.”
Scientists in the field say that recent advances will lead to new discoveries that will far outweigh any concerns.
“Anytime a new research field emerges, it takes a while to put the basic building blocks together. It’s just a matter of time. We’re getting there,” said S.K. Gupta, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Maryland who teaches a bio-inspired robotics course for college seniors.
“If you think about true biology, sensing and actuation are working at a really, really small scale,” he said. “Thirty years ago we weren’t able to construct anything at the micro scale. I think recent advances that are taking place in the area of micro-fabrication will help us tremendously.”
Research could one day unlock the mysteries of the incredible tensile strength of spider silk, the way organisms propel themselves through water and air so much more efficiently than vehicles, and how the fluids secreted by marine organisms have greater bonding strength than any glue humans have produced.
Even the smallest creatures, like the burrs that spurred Velcro, could hold a compelling secret.
“Every organism is designed to solve a problem,” Weissburg said.