Analogical Reasoning and the Essence of Biomimicry/Biomimetics/BID

Recent definitions of biomimicry/biomimetics/bio-inspired design (BID) tend to combine some form of 'learning from nature' with the goal of 'solving human problems'.  Although the key action, knowledge acquisition, is clearly necessary, I do not believe it is sufficient to reliably achieve the desired goal.  Focusing on the act of knowledge transfer between the natural and human domains seems to be closer to the essence of what we are trying to achieve: encouraging innovations based on natural examples and principles through inter-disciplinary collaboration and the cross-fertilization of ideas.

Emphasizing knowledge transfer over knowledge acquisition allows us to tap into research and methods relating to analogical reasoning.  Whether we are doing 'biology to design' or 'challenge to biology', we need to identify, explore and apply linkages between the known and the unknown.  That involves developing a sound understanding of the known, finding relevant candidates in the unknown, creating accurate mappings between the source and target domains, and finally developing those mappings such that they lead to insightful and useful innovation.

Biomimicry describes three types of emulation: form, process and system.  Analogical reasoning can provide a degree of clarity to this classification scheme by looking at the type of similarity between the analogs.  For example, emulating form could be associated with 'surface' similarities: easily retrieved and recognized, but unlikely to result in unexpected insights.  Emulating process could be associated with similarities based on function, requiring a deeper understanding of both the source and target domains.  Lastly, emulating systems could be associated with similarities based on causal relationships that often involve complex linkages or cascades of actions which cause or enable other actions.  Although the most difficult to identify, they are the most likely to encourage creativity and generate unexpected insights.

To test whether these three types of similarity are useful, I applied them to the case studies published in the first three issues of Zygote QuarterlyDesigned...to the Bone appears on the surface to be about emulating form - the prosthetic shares visible characteristic of the limb that it replaces, while 3D scanning and digital fabrication are key elements.  At a deeper level, Bespoke Innovations is exploring the load-bearing characteristics of bone to increase the strength while reducing the weight of the prosthetic, a shift towards similarity at the functional level.  Research in biomechanics shows promise for enabling analogies at the interaction level between the numerous components that create a fully functional limb.

  • The Power of Ants and Bees in the same issue involves abstract analogies that go beyond functionality.  The REGEN power controllers use concepts from swarm theory not only to reduce peak energy load but also to increase flexibility while reducing costs in terms of implementation, maintenance and the device itself: definitely a 'systems' analogy.
  • Auspicious Forms on the work of Eiji Nakatsu included analogies involving kingfishers and owls.  Although the shape of the Shinkansen 500 nose is visually similar to the kingfisher beak, the insight involved understanding how the bullet train generated a shock wave on exiting from tunnels and relating that to the kingfisher as it broke the interface between air and water at high speed.  Similarly, the study of owl feathers led to a deeper understanding of laminar flow and the noise generated by the pantograph.  Here, function appears to be the point of similarity.
  • Lastly, Return of the Swamp Thing looked at applications of the method used by the Pitcher Plant to create an extremely slippery surface that repelled water as well as oil.  The matrix of Teflon nanofibers filled with 3M Flourinert FC-70 appears to be a fairly straightforward match with the matrix and aqueous liquid of the Pitcher Plant, which would suggest an analogy at the level of form.

I have come to realize that practicing biomimicry/biomimetics/BID is much more complex than I had imagined.  I believe a definition for biomimicry/biomimetics/BID that focuses on the 'middle' of the process will encourage research into the translational and inductive aspects.  It may lead to innovative ideas that address the challenges making it difficult for us to turn 'theory into practice'.  We may need to investigate the unique characteristics of each field we want to target and build field-specific tools/methods. 

For additional information, please see Developing Cross-Domain Analogies using Natural-Language Sources in the Fall 2012 issue of Zygote Quarterly.

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Comments from Tom McKeag (via e-mail)

For me it is an act of TRANSLATION rather than acquisition (solo search and obtain) or transfer (movement between two comparable entities).

Tom, although the translation aspect of biomimicry comes up in discussion, the majority of written material focuses on the biological inspiration and the potential applications with little discussion about challenges that lie in the middle.  What I am looking for greater emphasis on the points raised in the Interview with Ashok K. Goel in Zygote Quarterly issue 4 and  the Interview with Jay Harman in the same issue.     

It strikes me that the most successful bio-inspired ideas, Velcro, Lotus, SLIPS, for instance, are not merely analogous, but also inductive, i.e. a universal or near universal application can be gleaned from the study of a specific phenomenon. That is the essence, in my opinion, of what we blunder around when we talk of “abstracting principles” from nature. No one, to my knowledge, has ever come out and stated this obvious fact: success, while not ensured by universality of application, is certainly boosted by the inductive characteristic of an idea.

Tom, I think your points are similar to the last stage of analogical reasoning described in the second paragraph.  Even if accurate mappings can be created, they still require developing to be useful. 

[With respect to the discussion of the REGEN power controller] What does “beyond functionality” mean? Aren’t cost and maintenance part of functioning?

Tom, factors like cost and maintainability are often considered 'non-functional' or 'quality of service' requirements. From my limited experience, these are often not 'top of mind' to clients, or at least design decisions affecting cost/maintainability may be outweighed by other considerations.

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Comments from Ashok Goel (via e-mail)

Hi Norbert, in my opinion your post both makes sense and is insightful.  I agree that analogical transfer is the key and further that similarity, which is the basis of analogy, can be at many levels of abstraction, e.g., form, process, system. Both are useful points to make and thanks for making them.

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Knowledge Transfer Relating to 'Fireflies Inspire Brighter LEDs'

Fireflies Inspire Brighter LEDs describes research into how the anatomy of the firefly abdomen allows it to radiate more light and the application to increasing the brilliance of LEDs.  Whether the investigators were looking for biological inspiration to improve LEDs or for applications of their research into fireflies is not clear at this point.  The researchers were experts in optics, allowing them to gain a deep understanding of how fireflies maximize the visibility of their flashes.  The same challenges are faced by LED manufacturers where light reflecting back at the surface of the LED reduces efficiency.  An understanding of the optical properties of the various structures in the firefly abdomen led to development of a similarly patterned surface.  This surface could be applied to standard LEDs without requiring significant changes to the production process while dramatically increasing the effective light output.

Based on the affiliation of the researchers, their specialty appears to be physics, specifically relating to optical phenomena.  The researchers acted as intermediaries between biology and LED manufacturing, applying a strong functional perspective that resulted in new insights within both domains that may not have occurred to experts in these domains.  At the same time, the researchers would need to have collaborated with domain experts to tap their unique knowledge. 

I will post additional details as I learn more.

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Trans-disciplinary Collaboration

Computer Vision Reveals The Remarkable Secret of Flocking describes the work of William Bialet and team to model flocking behavior in starlings.  Their work has strong similiarities with 'critical phase change' phenomena in physics.  Like Knowledge Transfer Relating to 'Fireflies Inspire Brighter LEDs' and Eric Lauga's research applying engineering to understand biology (Water snails offer new propulsion possibilities), this approach seems different from inter-disciplinary collaboration that emphasizes knowledge transfer or translation between two domains.  The concept of 'trans-disciplinary' collaboration may be more applicable, involving the identification/creation of new 'shared spaces' between domains that help integrate knowledge across disciplines and informs both domains.  Trans-disciplinary practitioners bring expertise that is not normally found within either domain.

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