Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things

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9780803217775: Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things
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Pulse provides a startling glimpse into a new science that has emerged from technology and been perfected by nature, a science destined to reshape every aspect of our lives. Poised to have as great an impact on our world as the machine age once did on the feudal world, this change is all the more surprising in that it is not the future we've been led to expect. Pulse charts the growing power of this “new biology” of human systems and machines based on the ingenious design of living things. Written in simple, lively prose, Pulse describes emotional computers; ships that swim like fish; hard, soft, and wet artificial life; farms that grow like prairies; technological ecosystems; money that mimics the energy flows in nature; evolution at warp speed; and a great deal more. Using vivid, concrete examples, Robert Frenay takes us on a world tour of cutting-edge developments and the often colorful personalities behind them. He also shows how, as the machine age morphs into a culture linking seamlessly with nature, the old clash between those who revere nature and those who laud technology is coming to an end. This shift will produce not only systems and machines inspired by living things but also a human “feedback” culture. Pulse offers thoughtful and original conclusions about the promise—and danger—of our transformation as we move into the next phase of human cultural evolution.

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About the Author:

Robert Frenay (1946–2007) was a freelance writer and a former contributing editor for Audubon magazine, where he covered positive developments along the interface of nature and technology.

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Excerpted from Pulse by Robert Frenay. Copyright © 2006 by Robert Frenay. Published in April 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
 
introduction
 
Many will see this book as a visitor’s guide to a brave new world of cutting-edge advances and gee-whiz technologies. So I should probably point out that there are no new ideas in the chapters that follow. True, the extraordinary developments outlined here will be mostly unknown to the casual reader, but the ideas that inform them are nearly four billion years old. What we are witnessing, and what this book charts, is a profound shift in the underlying concepts that shape virtually all human endeavors, or at least those in the industrialized world. As new insights into the workings of biology spawn fundamental redesigns of other fields, we can now watch the twin arcs of human culture and technology as they move to conform ever more closely to the underlying profile of living processes.
 
This is, at the same time, a big step past those reliable old machine age notions that have guided much of the world for centuries. And with that will come changes in the way we live. Many of them are going to be exciting and beneficial; some will be problematic, even dangerous. Either way, there is no question that they are well along. Because biological concepts are transforming so many different and seemingly unconnected fields at once, I believe those transformations are significant, evidence of a larger sea change.
 
What will be described here as the “new biology” draws from recent discoveries in biology to create machines and other systems that mimic the dynamics of life. Referred to technically by words like “biomimetics,” “ecomimetics,” and “bionics,” those efforts have spawned an ever-growing list of dazzling innovations that even now are moving out of the labs and into our daily lives. I should add that adopting lessons from nature is nothing new. The machine age itself was an early attempt to do just that. Unfortunately, it stopped short in its understanding of nature, basing our industry and eventually much of our culture today on concepts from the physics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Still, time has shown that getting things even half right was a powerful advance. After some three centuries we see the fruits of its success all around us. The problem is that evidence of its shortcomings is also on the rise. And that problem remains unsolved because the machine age approach—the underlying philosophy—now guiding efforts to correct it is actually its cause. There are good reasons for how this situation came about, the main one being the lack of any broad, viable alternative. But things are set to change. The new biology is that alternative, a more effective and realistic basis for the conventional wisdom that guides our decisions in every area of life.
 
* * *
 
This book might be called a current history. After the centuries-long run of machine age outlooks and practices, it describes a brief period of roughly a decade in which a new idea of the world has snapped into focus. The start of that accelerated period of change can be marked approximately by the 1994 founding of the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as W3C, a standards-setting body established by the Web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. That action formalized the connecting of business, science, politics, art, design, philosophy, and a growing base of curious home users through the Internet. At the time there were only a few hundred thousand computers involved, but over the next ten years, through the meandering and ever-multiplying links of the Web, hundreds of millions more would be added. With that spreading network of connections, fields as diverse as genetics, cell biology, brain structure, and ecology would meet and mingle with other fields ranging from materials science, robotics, artificial intelligence, and artificial life to agriculture, town planning, manufacturing, and economic theory.
 
One result of this unprecedented exchange, among the sweetest fruits it has borne, is the deeper integration of our culture with the natural world. But unlike the romantic feelings that inspired earlier turns to nature, this new esteem for life stems from a sense of wonder at the vibrant dynamics we now see unfolding at its heart. It is those principles—and our dawning awareness of their practical superiority as a guide for human design—that hold out the promise of a new era.
* * *
My own love of nature comes from a childhood lived on a dirt road along a rural lakeshore in upstate New York. It was an idyllic beginning, and the careless hours I spent as a boy fishing and wandering through open fields or wondering about the distant stars have remained a touch-stone throughout my life.
 
The genesis of this book was an ongoing series of conversations with Mike Robbins, my editor at Audubon magazine, where I worked in various capacities from 1991 through 1997. It was a formative experience, not least because of Robbins, then the magazine’s editor in chief. An award-winning journalist, Mike combines intellectual rigor and openness toward new ideas to a degree rare even in top editors. And the energy and ease he brought to his work made it an inspiring time to be there.
 
I wrote a small column for Audubon during this period, focused on the interface of nature and culture—in particular, on positive developments in technology. A hunch that ecosystems and economic systems might have parallels eventually took me to the Santa Fe Institute. There, Stuart Kauffman and Brian Arthur had been working on that question for some time, using computers as a kind of translation device between their two disciplines. The economics angle ended up as a sidebar to two long stories on the environmental promise of biologically inspired design; they ran in Audubon during the fall of 1995 and winter of 1996. This book has grown from them, and in the process has become a much broader project. To the best of my knowledge it is the first to bring under a single cover the full range of different fields being transformed by the biological approach.          Someone once said that in order to have “interdisciplinary,” you first have to have the disciplines, and this overview would not have been possible without the more specialized treatments that have preceded it. There are the classics like D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form, Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature, Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature, and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Since then there have been a number of books aimed at lay readers. They include Lessons from Nature by Daniel Chiras, Michael Rothschild’s Bionomics, Bruce Mazlish’s The Fourth Discontinuity, and Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control. A more recent wave of titles has included The Sand Dollar and the Slide Rule by Delta Willis; James Hogan’s Mind Matters; John Elkington’s The Chrysalis Economy; and Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry; also Darwin Among the Machines by George Dyson; The Third Culture by John Brockman; Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins; as well as Douglas Robertson’s Phase Change. And the list continues to grow. As this book was in its final stages, William McDonough and Michael Braungart added to the list with their Cradle to Cradle, as did Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis, with It’s Alive. All these efforts chart the rising influence of biological principles as a guide to human design. In doing so, many of them draw from yet more specialized discussions by writers such as Murray Gell-Mann, Robert Costanza, Stuart Kauffman, Christopher Langton, Richard Neutra, Steven Vogel, Robert Socolow, Wes Jackson, Masanobu Fukuoka, Dee Hock, Steven Levy, and an ongoing list of others—whose work in turn is rooted in personal experience and research, in scientific journals and proceedings, and in the trade periodicals of design and engineering.
 
In reviewing these works, I found it remarkable that the writers on this list have tended to focus on either environmental issues or the evolution of computers, but have rarely looked at the rapid converging of the two (Kelly is a notable exception). What’s more, during my interviews I was surprised to learn how few of the leading figures I talked with were aware of the extensive work being done to adopt biological principles in fields unrelated to their own.
 
While even experts may be unaware of how widespread the new biology has become, it’s already so broad and diverse a subject that any attempt to describe all that’s going on would require an encyclopedia. In this one volume there are more things left out than included. I have nevertheless tried to cover core developments in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere in order to give a broad picture of where things stand today and what the future holds. Each chapter focuses on a separate field where the insights of the new biology are having a major impact: nano-tech and materials science; robotic limbs and senses; artificial intelligence; complex adaptive systems in computers; complex adaptive systems in nature; agriculture; community planning; industry; economics; and democratic systems. Within each chapter, the problems caused in that field by machine age logic are outlined, too. While I’ve taken an international approach through most of the book, limitations of space and time have dictated the focusing of my final chapter on the United States. Still, the issues in question here have wider relevance, as a warning and a worst-case metaphor for other countries, and due to Americ...

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