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Biomimicry

The idea behind biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis meaning to imitate) seems painfully obvious. Nature has had millions of years to evolve organisms and ecosystems that work, and work under many different circumstances. So, why not try to reverse engineer that natural design intelligence in human-made devices and systems? Of course, biomimicry is nothing new. Humans have been imitating nature from the very beginning. Ancient peoples observed and copied how other predators hunted, the airplane was obviously inspired by nature’s flight technologies (though we were sidetracked for awhile by that whole flapping thing), and the telephone was inspired by the workings of the human ear. But the atomic and petrochemical ages made us humans a little cocky, and we began to think that we could “easily” outdo nature’s designs. With the emergence of greater environmental awareness in the 1960s and ’70s, and then the advent of computers and computer modeling in the ’80s and ’90s, suddenly, natural systems started to be more closely examined and effectively deconstructed, reconstructed, and “hacked” in high-tech laboratories.

A newfound appreciation arose for biological systems and their potential applications in human technologies and even social systems. Whereas physics had always been the foundational discipline in the realm of the hard sciences, the influence of biological sciences began to be felt in many quarters. In the early ’50s, with the birth of AI as a branch of computer science, researchers were confident that, as soon as the computational power was there, they could build smart machines. As a testament to this hubris, we see HAL 9000, the intelligent robotic ship in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of the science of AI, and the AI Lab at MIT, helped director Stanley Kubrick create this character (based on research projections of the time).


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