TED talks and biomimicry in IT

Today at lunch I sat down with Cherry 2010 at Subway, had a sandwich, and watched a TED Talk on biomimicry by Janine Benyus and what science can learn from the natural world. I came away thinking furiously about it, which I think is why TED opened up their talks recently.

Assuming that you watched the video, one thing that struck me is how different this approach is to the majority of our engineering-from-nature efforts. Tree bark solves headaches? How do we harvest it? Rainforests have wonder drugs? How can we pillage them? There’s been a focus on exploiting the natural world, of bending it to our designs and making it do our bidding. It is, at heart, a warlike focus. It values ownership over cooperation, production over innovation, and profit above all.

Interestingly one of the areas of science that she posits has learned a lot from nature already is computer software. As I sat there, I realized something- this approach of free cooperation and learning rather than owning and guarding jealously is exactly what has brought FOSS to the forefront. It is this spirit of exploration and building on the existing work of others that has basically revolutionized computer science.

Which brought me back to The Singularity Is Near, in which Ray Kurzweil observes that Nature is excellent at making minor revisions over time, while Man is good at creating new things from scratch. The exciting thing about this approach to science, to me, is that it mixes the best of both worlds. Man can take finely-tuned pieces, tested for millions of years in some cases, and from that build something new… Something that can leap forward by piggybacking on the same process that created us in the first place. Much like, for example, a GNU project might use standardized libraries.

For years, Man has seen the natural kingdom as his to rule. You can see this mindset in industry, in landscaping, in religion… Everywhere. This is the time when we, as a species, start to realize that we can learn something from Nature other than how to exploit her. This is a time when corporations, too, are learning to care more about people, to cooperate and innovate instead of control and own. It’s a time when we have begun to realize that perhaps there are more important things than dollars- things like the world we leave our children to inherit. Like the lady says, we have millions of geniuses willing to share their best ideas with us- we just have to learn to communicate.

Anyone interested in further information on biomimicry can find it at The Biomimicry Institute Janine founded.

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