“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” Lyall Watson
Summer time! For me it means working on bio-inspired algorithms, one in particular I’ve been spending some time on is Artificial Neural Networking (ANN). This had me asking my sister (who is working on her PhD in neuroscience) about how synapses, pathways, etc. work. This post will be on how ANN was inspired and some of the materials I found interesting on it. Let’s start with the obsession with neural network and why it matters? Machines do complicated mathematical calculations in a matter of seconds, yet they have difficulty performing some easy tasks such as recognizing faces, understanding and speaking in local languages, passing theTurning test. OK, let’s compare machines to our brain: A single transistor in your home computer is quite fast; only limited by speed of light and the physical distance to propagate a signal. A signal(Ions) in the neuron, on the other hand, propagates on a fraction of the speed (Flake, 1999). This begs the question, which is better? A good comparison can be found here. One main fact is that our brain makes use of a massive parallelism; it’s this massive interaction between axons and dendrites that contribute to how our brain works. Many argue that the comparison to computers is not very useful as they work differently from each other. Can we make a digital reconstruction of human brain? I follow Blue Brain project for this. Hence, as you can guess ANN algorithm is a simple imitation of how our neurons work. It works by feed forward and back propagations to learn patterns. Originally proposed as McCulloch-Putts neuron in the 1940s and 1980s by invention of Hopfield-Tank feedback neuron network. The 1960s had an good optimistic start on neural networks with the work of Frank Rosenblatt’s perceptron (a pattern classification device). However, by 1969 there was a decline in this research and publication of Perceptrons by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert caused it to almost die off. Minsky and Papert showed how a single perceptron was insufficient with any learning algorithm by giving it mathematical proofs. It took a while and many independent works till the value of Neural Networking came to light again. One main contribution is the two-volume book titled Parallel Distributed Processing by James L. McClelland and David E. Rumelhart and their collaborators. In this work, they changed the proposed unit step function proposed to a smooth sigmoid function and added a backward error signal propagation using weights of some hidden neurons called back propagation (Flake, 1999). Reading through chapter 20 of Parallel Distributed Processing written by F. Crick and C. Asanuma, I read about physiology and anatomy of the cerebral cortex. It shows different neural profiles.
It talks about different layers in the cortex such as the superficial, upper, middle, and deep layer, axons, synapses, neurotransmitters. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate the complexity of our brain and wonder about the simplicity of Artificial Neural Network algorithms, and can’t help but feel amazed by what Blue Brain Project is aiming to do.
Like a house-cat exploring its environment, lets dive into narrow unexplored places…
Flake, G. W. The computational beauty of nature, 1999
McClelland, J. L. Rumelhart, D. E. Parallel distributed processing, Volume 2. Psychological and biological models, 1989
Together with about 25 others we spend a week to learn more about how Biomimicry Thinking can be applied to Social Innovation, a workshop given by Toby Herzlich and Dayna Baumeister. My personal interest in entrepreneurship made me question: “What can we learn from nature about being an entrepreneur?”
Yes, nature has entrepreneurs too, they are called pioneer species. Fireweed, a pink flower that appears as first after a huge forest fire, is one example. They are the species that are the first colonizers of harsh environments and are the drivers for ecological successions that ultimately lead to a more biodiverse and stable ecosystem.
1. You should not strive for a perfectly balanced Work/Life
Almost daily a new article appears in which tips are exposed to obtain a healthy work/life balance. Well, if we follow nature’s advice, we could keep trying to find it, but in nature there is no such thing as a “balanced” state. Although the overall appearance might seem in balance, the truth is that this is the result of a “dynamic non-equilibrium” or a constant flow of states to come as close as possible to equilibrium. One of the main reasons: (natural) disturbances will occur, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.
So, what is the best way to cope with this “stress” of having to deal with (unexpected) disturbances that throw you in unbalance? One is most resilient when being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist”; or in other words: don’t try to be extremely good at one specific thing.
Translating this to ourselves: If work becomes so dominant that you develop your personal skills almost only in your field of work (e.g. becoming extremely productive at managing your work, or being an uber smart coder — usually “hard” skills), you will have a very hard time to enjoy your non-work life (e.g. spending a relax time with your family — usually “soft” skills). Nature’s advice is to develop both your hard and soft skills so that you more easily can adapt to either your work-self or your life-self.
By the way: just the fact that we call them “work” and “life” is already a sign that something is totally wrong. You should be alive at work.
2. As a pioneer you usually grow fast and die young
Perhaps the most shocking news from nature: as a pioneer you only have a very temporary role to play. You are the one to appear as first since you are able to withstand those harsh conditions that others can’t. You can withstand the hard winds, the low nutritious soil, or the high currents. Even better, you thrive in them, making you grow fast and reproduce in high amounts. Together with your peers of pioneers you will change the conditions of your environment, you are making them more accessible for others to come and stay. But as soon as they have arrived, your role is to leave space for them, and find a new, underdeveloped area.
Seems like there is a good reason why you see so many serial entrepreneurs. If you are good at seeing new business opportunities and making them viable, perhaps your role should be just that. Why stay at one place and try to compete with the next generation (e.g. managers, CEO’s)? Can you accept that others are better at growing your business idea? If so, you might have found your best talent and will enjoy to plant many new seeds and let them be grown by others.
3. Your pioneering role is to create conditions for the next generation
As a pioneer you are the first to colonize, but you are not there to stay. Being able to thrive in harsh conditions your job is to fix the sand or soil, to make nutrients more accessible, to enrich the soil, to create shelters from hard winds, etc. Suddenly other species will find out that the harsh conditions changed, and became viable to them. They will start settling and as they are better in other things than you, for example they need less resources or they are better at making friends (called mutualistic relationships in nature), they will take over. The end stage of ecological successions is a stable, biodiverse ecosystem, like the redwood forest and coral reefs. Change in nature is accepted as a good thing.
4. You have two different ways to impact your environment
Apparently there are two ways a pioneer can change its environment:
i) change the environment directly; e.g. a beaver that builds dams will cause changes in the river flow,
ii) change itself, which indirectly affects the environment; e.g. coral needs CO2 to grow, taking it from the sea water thus creating a CO2-poor environment around the corals.
How can we apply this to ourselves?
As an entrepreneur you can introduce a new product into the world, which creates an entire new market. Think cars, mobile industry, and computers.
Or you can change yourself, affecting your environment. Examples that come to mind are: Not believing that the world is flat, literally throw our world upside-down. Or the fact that industry is now becoming more and more circular thanks to those thought-leaders that couldn’t accept our linear thinking and realized that “waste” doesn’t exist.
In both cases, what you are doing is preparing the environment to attract followers that usually will take over and be the ones to make the actual long-lasting change. If your startup doesn’t make it into a real company, that doesn’t mean you failed. On the contrary: you set a new stage for others that are perhaps better at running a big company, but you sure made a difference!
5. You should know what kind of messages you are sending and to whom
You come home after a long day, are hangry and your partner is in the sofa watching a TV show. You mumble to yourself “pfff why haven’t you made dinner yet!” and start cooking with a grumpy face. After 10 mins you are so angry and yell, “HEY, I’m home! Why haven’t you made dinner yet? I’m starving!”. Your partner stands up from the sofa, and says: “I made dinner for us, it’s in the oven and the table is set outside.”
Familiar? What happens is that you are sending messages that aren’t perceived by the other. Although you might think your partner heard you mumbling, he probably hasn’t. As he is watching an interesting TV show he didn’t even noticed that you were so hungry. He already knew dinner would be ready in 15 min but didn’t realize he should have told you.
There are many great examples in nature where a specific message is perfectly aligned between the sender and the receiver. Flowers not only send out a yummy smell to attract bees, they also have a beautiful UV pattern that shows them the way to their nectar. We as humans don’t see UV so these patterns/message would be totally useless if it were to guide us.
Next time your message isn’t being acted upon, ask yourself: “Who is my receiver, and which message is the most clear for them to understand what I need?”
So this week, I picked up watching chef documentaries in my free time. Inevitably, in the course of the documentary, the chef goes to a farm, a boat, the forest, or a market to find ingredients which comprise a part of one of the stunning dishes shown in a montage later in the documentary. The chef in the scene searches for only the most remarkable ingredients. During the scene, the supplier will usually discuss the ingredient in some amount of detail to help the audience better appreciate the care which goes into producing that ingredient. One which really caught my attention was a discussion on mescal. The producer collects the agave and separates them not only by species, but also by growing location and age. Context is key in making the best possible product. This led me to think about the role of context in seeing what we can achieve in biomimicry.
Greetings! The case study I promised you in my last post documenting a successful implementation of biomimicry at my corporate sponsor, GOJO Industries, has finally published! It is featured in the most recent issue of Research-Technology Management, a leading source of knowledge and best practices on innovation management for leaders of research, development, and engineering worldwide. You can access the article, titled “Biomimicry: Streamlining the Front End of Innovation for Environmentally Sustainable Products, here. Let me know what you think!
In other news, I was invited by the Austen BioInnovation Institute to give a series of lectures on the ‘how-to’ of biomimicry to 40 high-achieving high school students enrolled in the 2016 BioInnovation Academy. The academy encourages students to explore solutions to real-life health and medical problems using a variety of innovation methods. This year the focus is reducing rates of concussion, so part of my lecture was on my own experiences as co-founder of a tech startup in this space. (Bill and my startup, Hedgemon, is developing a hedgehog-inspired impact protection technology, with initial focus on R&D of a safety liner for football helmets.) In a testament to the impact Great Lakes Biomimicry is making with their educational programs, HALF the students attending my first lecture were already familiar with the term biomimicry. Incredible!
After my lecture I tried out a pair of the Austen BioInnovation Institute’s concussion goggles, which simulate symptoms of traumatic brain injury such as dizziness, visual disconnect, and disorientation. My attempt at a game of catch while wearing the goggles was pathetic. The goggles make you look like a minion!
This June, the Great Lakes Biomimicry (GLBio) team and the University of Akron Biomimicry PhD program filmed for the recently globally syndicated Children’s STEM program Xploration: Nature Knows Best. The film crew traveled around Northeast Ohio to The University of Akron Campus, Akron Public School’s National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) STEM High School, and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo to highlight the incredible work we’re doing in Biomimicry STEM Education programming. GLBio is the glue that holds the entire Northeast Ohio Biomimicry fabric together and it’s because of this team’s leadership that pulled all of our collaborators and resources together to come up with not only this opportunity, but numerous others, as well, to elevate the NEO Biomimicry landscape and our partners to the global stage. (Hmmm…this reminds me of someone and another little event that just happened…)
Some of the K-12 STEM highlights include: Lorain County’s Elyria High School Biology teacher Jennifer Smith; NIHF deep Biomimicry Project Based Learning initiatives; PhD education fellows and how we work with the schools and other informal education centers; the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Biomimicry Trail, as well as Professor Wylde’s traveling show, which has re-written its script to be all about learning from nature! As an added point on the Zoo’s education outreach – every single 2nd-8th grader in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) comes to the zoo as part of their education (Check out this article discussing the CMSD partnership with our museums, zoos, and other learning opportunities). Additionally, The University of Akron’s Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center (BRIC) PhD research program earned the spotlight, as well. Professor Peter Niewiarowski showed off one of our many Tokay geckos, and PhD Candidate Bill Hsiung discussed structural colors of Morpho Butterflies.
As an added bonus, the film crew was also impressed with PhD candidates Emily Kennedy and Bill Hsiung’s (and others) start-up company “Hedgemon”. They filmed the Hedgemon team talking about their hedgehog-inspired shock-absorbing composite.
Look for the episode to air sometime in October 2016, and in the meantime for your dose of Northeast Ohio Awesomeness: GO CAVS!
Dr. Peter Niewiarowski showing the Tokay Gecko adhesive system.
Biomimicry PhD Candidate Bill Hsiung showing the power of structural colors in nature.
Elyria High School Biology teacher Jennifer Smith on how integrating Biomimicry into her curriculum has positively influenced her students and their grades.
One stop on the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Biomimicry Trail.
I was hoping that by now I would be able to share the videos from our TEDxUniversityofAkron Salon event (April 5th, 2016) with you. However, the videos are not ready yet. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about my research crowdfunding experience that happened about the same time. Continue reading →
The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently running a fashion exhibit titled Manus x Machina that runs from May through August 2016. The exhibit examines how technology such as computer modeling, 3D printing and laser cutting has impacted high-end fashion. The distinction between haute couture and prêt-a-porter has been blurred by technology and Manus x Machina challenges the dichotomy of hand made versus machine made. The exhibit features garments that were innovative in their time, starting with the use of the sewing machine in couture in 1919. Nature has always been an inspiration for fashion and creates a striking aesthetic appeal. What struck me was the conversation around sustainability and how the industry is looking to biomimicry to attain sustainable development in the face of resource depletion and increasing pollution resulting from fashion design, consumption and textile production.
Over the course of hundreds of millions of years our forest has evolved to become an intricate design of function and self-support. After researching anything and everything of plant evolution this week, I have become even more in love with these photosynthetic critters. There is much biomimicry to be learned from plants: urban design, architecture, engineering, and cooperation among individuals. Now, let’s talk plants!
First, the importance of community: herbaceous, shrub, and canopy levels are put in place to create a sustainable environment for each individual and the community as a whole. (For the sake of clarity, herbaceous layers are typically knee-high and below, shrub layers are knee high to five meters, and canopy layers are anything above five meters). Within each layer, there are different sizes, shapes, and colors that allow efficient flow of resources.
The colors of plants hamper the effects of sunlight, dependent on location of the plant. Dark leaves absorb more light than light-colored leaves. Consider the dark needles of the conifer. Known to be in areas where sunlight can be limited, the dark needles allow them to take full advantage of any sunlight they receive. The cactus, on the other hand, has no shortage of sunlight in the open desert. Typically light-colored, cactus stems reflect light, preventing them from scorching in the direct sunlight. Leaf size and shape differ among species, as well. Leaves with a higher surface area are directly related to increased cooling effects. Surface area is increased by features like prickles and hairs: cactus spines, roughness of an Ulmus leaf. Research has indicated that in urban shaded areas, there is an air temperature decrease of up to 2.5℃ and a surface-soil temperature decrease of up to 8℃ (1). Leaf and plant shapes are important in much the same way as color. Larger leaves are designed to absorb more light, but what is particularly interesting to this midwestern girl is the efficient shape of the cactus. The star shape, specifically, is linked to a more energy-efficient building design in architecture. There is less surface area to receive sunlight, this buildings require less air conditioning (less energy) to cool the building.