The more we learn about how we humans work, the more able we are to use biomimetics to leap forward with our technology. Biomimetics is the mimicking of biology. Many of our most promising new technologies borrow from the remarkable solutions arrived at by nature over millions of years of evolution. Examples of biomimetic products include velcro, aerogels, superhydrophobic surfaces, efficient wing shapes and solar cells, ultra-strong materials, and many, many more, with a multitude of new projects going all in labs all over the world, all seeking to imitate some extraordinary feature found in nature.
Robot design will benefit from biomimetics in numerous ways. Androids, by definition, are imitations of the human body plan; that is, humanoid. But the imitation can and will go much deeper. The human skeletal system, with its attached muscles and tendons, differs in significant ways from the typical chassis frame of current androids, and this difference is reflected on the functional level. It turns out that human locomotion is remarkably efficient, and so one approach to making android locomotion more efficient will be to mimic the human gait, which will require a similar musculoskeletal construction.
Nature, through natural selection, arrives at solutions that are sufficient to enable the organism to survive and thrive in the face of whatever challenges are present in the local environment. It is important to note that nature arrives at sufficient solutions, which, while often far better than humans can think up on their own, are not necessarily optimal solutions. Again, a sufficient solution is not an optimal solution. This means that biomimetics, in the hands of competent researchers and engineers, offers an initial leap forward, but not necessarily an end point. Once we figure out how nature accomplishes a task, we may be capable of going on to improve it even further.
Take the human spine, for example. It is a mind boggling structure, from an engineering perspective, breathtaking in its complexity, flexibility, strength and durability. It enables humans to stand erect, for extended periods, carry heavy weights, move and flex and tumble and roll and support the movements of all limbs. And yet it is far from perfect, as evidenced by the number of back problems people experience. As we develop future android chassis, we will have the benefit of using what works well, and trying to improve upon it.
The androids of the near future will not look mechanical, like the robots of today, with steel rods, gears and wires, metal covering plates held on with bolts and screws. All of these industrial age materials will be obsolete within the next 10 – 20 years, replaced by new, much lighter and stronger materials, molded or printed into the desired shapes. Many of there materials are already in development, inspired by biomimetics.
Android chassis will not be the only things to benefit from biomimetics. So will their brains. One specialized area of biomimetics is neuromimetics.
Neuromimetics is the mimicking of the nervous system, including the brain. While this does, of course, requires a solid understanding of how the system works, it also helps us to further refine our models. If our emulations don’t work the way we expect, we can go back to our models to figure out where we’ve gone wrong and try again.
There are actually two branches of neuromimetics; medical and technological. It is technological neuromimetics to which I refer when I use the term, that is, building technology that mimics the workings of the nervous system and brain. The use of neuromimetics is still in its infancy. A current example of this is seen in neuromorphic chips; microprocessors configured to resemble the wiring of the brain, rather than that of traditional circuits. (See The MIT Technology Review – http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/526506/neuromorphic-chips/)
It will be exciting to see where this work leads in the next decades, as its fruits are combined with those of the Human Brain Project (https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/) and other efforts. Computers can be expected to become much more capable and efficient. But will they be able to think?
Let’s explore that question next time.