Nature, the Ultimate Technology
This series examines recurring patterns in nature, and the science of flow – how energy travels through natural systems, the patterns it produces on its way, and how we can theoretically apply those patterns to optimize manmade networks such as the Internet, transportation systems, government, mass media, etc.
As I have discussed in Designing a Sustainable Energy Infrastructure and in the Exponential Series, natural systems have evolved to become incredibly efficient. Despite our rapid progress, we still have much to learn from nature. As I will go on to explain, nature is in many ways an optimally efficient technology. The best example of this is photosynthesis, which is a much more elegant and complex system than previously understood.
“Through photosynthesis, green plants and cyanobacteria [use quantum tunneling] to transfer sunlight energy … into chemical energy with nearly 100-percent efficiency.” –Berkeley Lab (also see ScienceDaily, Wired)
All natural systems can be modeled in terms of flow — that is, inputs and outputs. Because many of the flows we see in nature have evolved over incredibly long spans of time, they represent great efficiency. Thus, we can learn a great deal by modeling these systems and understanding how they work.
Patterns of Flow in Nature
First, let’s define flow as how energy passes through a system.
“Flow systems have two basic features (properties). There is the current that is flowing (for example, fluid, heat, mass, or information) and the design through which it flows.” – Adrian Bejan, J. Peder Zane
Flow is not a thing – it is nonpoint – but we can often find its fingerprint. As nature optimizes energy distribution throughout its systems, it forms curious patterns – visual byproducts of flow optimization.
Examples of flow include electricity permeating through a metal sheet, water moving through a river delta, electrical signals jumping between neurons, or blood traveling through a circulatory system. Flow is a universal aspect of systems – living and nonliving alike.
Example: A River DeltaClick to show
Rivers share the same branching patterns as lightning bolts, cardiovascular systems, neural networks, and even cities (where roads and highways act like the circulatory systems for large urban centers). Without knowing it, manmade networks have already begun to replicate natural flow, precisely because it is most efficient.
Nature: The Ultimate Technology
Nature evolves to facilitate better flow, which seems to adhere to the Principle of Least Effort (that is, the path of least resistance).
“The designs we see in nature are not the result of chance. They rise naturally, spontaneously, because they enhance access to flow…” – Adrian Bejan, J. Peder Zane
In other words, the recurring patterns we see in nature are not mere coincidence. They are the result of billions of years of natural selection, and represent incredible thermodynamic efficiency. This treelike branching pattern of neurons responsible for consciousness seems to be a structural feature of the universe itself.
The real beauty of the Constructal Pattern is that it’s self optimizing – an idea I continue to explore in the next part. To me, it’s mindblowing how matter seems ‘inclined’ to form this pattern – the same pattern that gives rises to consciousness. Matter presumably organizes into the Constructal Pattern because of the laws of physics we experience (natural constants like the force of gravity, electron spin and charge, and so on). So in a sense, this means the universe “wants“ to make consciousness. Matter itself has an affinity for it, which means that consciousness is an emergent property of matter. Given enough time and matter, the Constructal Pattern will arise – and presumably, consciousness along with it.
The Constructal Pattern is widespread – in fact, its treelike structure seems to be written into the very fabric of the cosmos, even down to the subatomic level. This pattern is literally found everywhere, from the subatomic (e.g.diffusion of electrons) to the super-massive (e.g. the Cosmic Web, on the scale of galaxies).
“Electrons follow the same natural laws that govern all systems that flow—electricity snaking its way from a storm cloud to Earth, rivers branching into ever smaller creeks and streams, or the spidery web of veins that distributes blood throughout your body.” –Symmetry Magazine
“[The Constructal Pattern] sweeps the entire mosaic of nature from inanimate rivers to animate designs, such as vascular tissues, locomotion, and social organization.” – Adrian Bejan, J. Peder Zane
Curiously enough, the Internet shares a similar structure, and so does the distribution of dark matter in the Milky Way (see the Bolshoi Simulation and links in the footer). This begs the question: Is this pattern universal? Moreover, is it sentient? We already know that the dense network of neurons in our brains is directly related to consciousness. If the same pattern persists on much greater scales than that, what might it imply about our universe? For a closer examination of this idea, see Information Becoming Aware of Itself in the next part of the series.
Technology Becoming Nature
There are signs that what we think of as nature and what we think of as technology are actually bound to converge – evidenced by how manmade networks like the Internet are beginning to mimic the structures of many networks in nature. As described earlier, “manmade networks have begun to replicate natural flow, precisely because it is most efficient.”
“The natural world has found ways to work and live in harmony for a long time. If we want to also survive and create sustainability systems, biomimicry may be the key.” – Creating Resilience by Following Nature’s Lead
The core idea I seek to convey here is that we can accelerate this process of coevolution – we can learn fromnature to make better technology. This is known as the field of biomimetics.
The Significance of Recurring Patterns in Nature
A common trend of technology is to seek maximum thermodynamic efficiency. Scientists and engineers go through many design iterations to improve flow (and decrease waste heat) in new technologies. But we can take a huge shortcut by observing and emulating the designs of natural systems. Because nature is self-optimizing, it has evolved to become both incredibly efficient and resilient. The ability for natural systems to self-configure for optimal flow is a trait we should seek to emulate in new technologies. Hardware that can be “programmed” like software is a very promising start (see Reprogrammable Chips Could Allow You to Update Your Hardware Just Like Software). This model can also be applied to cognitive computing and psychology, because the human brain is essentially a flow system that configures itself for tasks it does repeatedly (the brain forms neural pathways for tasks it does often).
If we want to design more efficient technologies, we already have a great template to work from, and it’s all around us (and inside our own brains). Natural flow maximizes energy distribution while simultaneously minimizing heat loss. Can this natural branching pattern (what I refer to as the Constructal Pattern) be applied to manmade systems to increase their efficiency?
Nature is Technology
A fundamental claim of this series is that the divisions we make between “nature” and “technology” are illusory. Everything’s part of the same network of space and time. So everything’s natural; everything’s a technology. Given enough time, there becomes no real difference. Jason Silva discusses similar ideas in the following video. On a related note, this website is also incredibly interesting – it uses biology as a metaphor for computing.
Nature and technology are not opposed. It may not seem like that today, but I understand nature and technology to be two sides of the same coin. Over time, I’d expect them to reach a mutualistic equilibrium (and I would presume this to be the trend of all life in the universe).
Interpretation of the Constructal Pattern in terms of Duality
If we view nature as meandering and technology as direct, the recurring patterns we observe across all scales – from the treelike branching of lightning to the structure of neurons to the distribution of dark matter in galaxies – may represent an optimal balance; the middle ground. (This is intentionally abstract because it borders on the metaphysical – the Constructal Pattern interpreted as the unity of yin/yang. For an expanded discussion of the “universal duality” I refer to, see this post from the Mind Series)
“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” — Gregory Bateson
Natural systems are so efficient because they’ve had the most time to evolve. Compared to the universe (a natural system which has been evolving for roughly 14.6 billion years) human technology is relatively brand new – hence the flawed notion that “nature” and “technology” are fundamentally separate. Any technology that seems unnatural may simply be a technology that hasn’t had enough time to to mimic nature’s flow, i.e. answer the flow optimization problem using nature’s Constructal pattern.
- Nature produces intelligence.
- Intelligence produces technology.
- Technology improves through the process of iterative design, which implies a perpetual improvement in efficiency (i.e. more work per unit energy). Thus, as technology improves, it becomes more like nature, because natural flow is optimally efficient.
- Thus, intelligence uses technology to recreate its origins (nature; the Constructal Pattern).
If this is accurate, then the differences between technology and nature are literally nonexistent; the only distinguishing factor is time, i.e. how long the network has had to evolve.
“Synthetic is just a word. Everything is synthetic; the question is, who synthesized it?” – H+: The Digital Series
Nature producing Technology producing Nature: an Endless Cycle?
Quickly access this series at http://flow.brentpeters.me
The ideas I’ve mentioned here are discussed in greater detail in Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization, which I would highly recommend.
- “Universe Grows Like a Giant Brain” (Space.com). “Study: Your Brain Works Like the Internet” (Livescience). Could intelligence be the product of vast networks?
- See 3:50 in this TED Talk by Paul Stamets
- Kelly McGonigal writes a great deal about this idea from a neuroscience/psychology standpoint.
- This is intentionally abstract because it borders on the metaphysical (the Constructal Pattern seen as the unity of yin/yang). For an expanded discussion of the “universal duality” I refer to, see this post from the Mind Series.
|Brent Peters attends the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is a fellow of the Global Information Internship Program (now the Everett Program), which is an organization that focuses on bridging the digital divide through projects that empower communities with Information and Communications Technology. He will graduate in 2014 with a degree in Global Information and Social Enterprise Studies (ICT/Sociology).|