Digital Biomimicry

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Biomimicry is the emulation of nature in order to solve grasshopper when it drinks water, it feeds on the grasshopper’s human problems. The Velcro strip, for example, was invented by George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, who observed how tiny hooks of cockleburs become attached to his dog’s fur. The study of lotuses led to the creation of self-cleaning surfaces, as the leaves of this plant have a microtexture that causes raindrops to roll off immediately. Today, fireflies are analysed for the microstructure of their lanterns, which could improve the efficiency of LED lamps, while humpback whales are studied for their flippers, and the toes of geckoes for their adhesive properties. Many of these emulations have led to commercial products, but they represent only a fraction of what the natural world has to offer. Leonard da Vinci, as a renowned polymath, did not shy away from the outdoors, and described nature as “the master of all masters”, while epic poets such as Homer and Virgil used vivid similes from nature to paint poignant scenes. Architecture like that of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia uses natural forms to solve its structural issues, and Japan’s bullet train mimics the kingfisher’s beak as an efficient aerodynamic model.

Nor has conceptual thinking escaped this form of analogous thinking. Sustainability, for example, has leaped from being an obscure concept to a buzzword in the span of a few decades, and the integration of ecological concepts into other disciplines (such as economics) has never been so enthusiastically received as now. This sort of imitation is called biomimicry, and I will argue that our digital services and products could also benefit from it.

Using a pioneering work of the influence predators, the Yellowstone Wolf Project observed how a single species can be crucial in sustaining a diverse ecological system. Begun in 1995 and still active, the project to re-introduce the grey wolf to Yellowstone Park is a confirmation of how one species can impact the equili- brium of both fauna and flora. As a species, the grey wolf has a disproportional effect on its environment, and today is a crucial element in the park’s sustainability: a keystone species.

Like the grey wolf, the iPhone, introduced in 2007, profoundly affected its ecosystem – albeit a digital one. As in Yellowstone, the introduction of the smartphone eroded old behaviours and af- fected even the lower levels of that ecosystem. As digital touch- points became mobile and no longer depended on personal computers, the equilibrium changed. After the introduction of the iPhone, use of the mobile internet exceeded desktop use within seven years in the USA, and almost three-quarters of internet users are expected to be mobile-only by 2025 (WARC). As part of the digital transformation, the smartphone created a new equilibrium in the digital landscape, mimicking the adaptive cycle found with- in the dynamics of ecosystems.

In another example, social media platforms feed on our personal data in order to survive. In contrast to traditional media, which are not interactive and which spread information indiscriminately, the new media may be evolving towards parasitism. In nature, parasites come in all shapes and sizes, and they differ in their objectives, strategy and who they infect. Bird species like the European cuckoo lay their eggs in the nests of another species, while a cheetah may have its impala prey stolen from it by hyenas. An interesting case is the Nematomorpha. A worm that enters the tissues and then alters the grasshopper’s central nervous system so that the insect drowns and the worm can complete its lifecycle in an aquatic environment. In the case of parasitism, we may observe that the health of the host is negatively affected by the relationship.

Social media platforms use relationships as their core business, and contrary to popular belief, studies(1,2) have shown that the social media are not detrimental to the health of their users as long as the usage remains mindful. On the basis of this information, we suggest that careful social media users do not have a parasitical relation with their platforms, but rather mimic another form of exchange. This phenomenon is found among plant pollinators, where the plant provides food in return for its pollen being trans- ported. When users provide data in return for access to a net- work, we could be witnessing a case of biomimicry. In such a relationship both parties benefit, corresponding to a case of mutualism. If, on the other hand, we add extractors of social media data, such as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the relationship becomes less clear and the beneficial exchange compromised. Observing and learning from the natural world can thus shed light on the digital one.

Ants are a fascinating species, with their self-sacrificial nature and advanced sociality. They have a long history of use in research thanks to their variety and presence in numerous ecosystems. The Gordon Lab at Stanford University is a pioneering research laboratory in myrmecology (the study of ants) and complex systems, and it was through their association with the Department of Computer Science that they witnessed a case of digital biomimicry. They saw striking similarities between the TCP/IP protocol (rules governing internet communication) and seed-eating ants. As the reproductive success of ants depends on their deci- sions concerning when to apply their resources and get water, ants need a positive confirmation before they are sent out to forage. This resembles the TCP/IP protocols, which require a positive confirmation that the data transferred will be received at the other end before it is sent out. What interests researchers is the regulation of ants’ behaviour, as they have no top-down management. How do ants instinctively decide to take risks? Their de- cisions are simple, distributed, and scalable. These qualities are attractive for algorithms, and could improve the technology behind distributed systems.

Why are parallels between the digital and natural world so prevalent? Part of the answer may lie in our longing for nature, especially in urban environments. Sue Thomas argues in Techno- biophilia: Nature and Cyberspace that it is the result of our natural affinity for life (biophilia). We are attracted to life and lifelike processes, even if they are digital. Our relationship with the digital world could therefore partly be explained by biophilia.

We should thus welcome the use of biology as a framework through which to gain novel insights and concepts. The increasing ubiquity of digital services and products requires us to seek solutions that emulate nature if we wish to be successful in our transition to the digital age. We cannot afford to ignore them, as this is where the keys to a sustainable future may be found.

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