Objectives

CiBER represents two major objectives.

Core Objective

The Center for Integrative Biomechanics in Education and Research will lead the development of a new field of Integrative Systems Biomechanics and train the next generation of integrative biologists.

Broad Objective

The Center for Interdisciplinary Biological Inspiration in Education and Research will innovate methods to extract principles in biology that inspire novel design in engineering and train the next generation of scientists and engineers to collaborate in mutually beneficial relationships.

Biological Inspiration in the Age of Integration We define Biology Inspiration as the use of principles and analogies from biology when advantageous to generate novel designs through integration with the best human engineering [1].

Biologists working with engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians are discovering general principles of nature from the level of molecules to behavior at an ever-increasing pace. Now more than ever before, nature can instruct us on how to best use new materials and manufacturing processes discovered by engineers, because these human technologies have more of the characteristics of life. This effort will require unprecedented integration among disciplines that include biology, psychology, engineering, physics, chemistry, computer science and mathematics. Fortunately, the age of integration is here. Nature provides useful hints of what is possible and design ideas that may have escaped our consideration. Given the unique process of biological evolution and its associated constraints, identifying, quantifying and communicating these design ideas is a challenge. Here is where the integrative biologist can contribute most to the inspiration transferred to the engineer. Biologists offering advice need not only understand principles of structure and function, but use their knowledge of phylogenetic analysis, behavior and ecology to extract potentially valuable design ideas. Design ideas motivated from nature should include those involving the processes of development, evolution and learning. However, engineers should not blindly copy these design ideas. In many cases, engineers have developed approaches, tools, devices and materials far superior to those in nature. It is important to be reminded that biological evolution works on the “just good enough” principle.

Organisms are not optimally designed and natural selection is not engineering. Engineers often have final goals, whereas biological evolution does not. Organisms must do a multitude of tasks, whereas in engineering executing far fewer tasks will do. As a result, “trade-offs” are the rule, severe constraints are pervasive and global optimality rare in biological systems. Biological evolution has brought us amazingly functional and adaptive designs. However, we must not forget that about five hundred million species have gone extinct and only a few million remain. Biological evolution works more as a tinkerer than an engineer. The tinkerer never really knows what they will produce and uses everything at their disposal to make something workable. Organisms carry with them the baggage of their history. Therefore, they must co-opt the parts they have for new functions. Part of an ear is built from jaw bones and wings from legs. Organisms are not an optimal product of engineering, but “a patchwork of odd sets pieced together when and where opportunities arose” [2]. Natural selection is constrained to work with the pre-existing materials inherited from an ancestor. Dolphins have not re-evolved gills and no titanium has been found in tortoise shells [3]. Engineers can start from scratch and select the optimal raw materials and tools for the task desired, natural selection cannot. Organisms are not optimally adapted for the environment in which they reside. Biological evolution can’t keep pace with the changing environments because not all phenotypic variation is heritable and if selection were too strong it could easily produce extinction. Natural selection can’t anticipate major changes in environments. Behavior can evolve more quickly than morphology and physiology leading to mismatches. Engineers can optimize for one or a few environments and choose to add appropriate safety factors as dictated by previous experience. Finally, most organisms grow, but must continue to function. As a result development can constrain evolution of the final product — the adult. Engineers are not so constrained and fortunately are not required to make fully function miniature versions of their final designs.

References

  1. Full, R.J. 2001. Using Biological Inspiration to Build Artificial Life That Locomotes. In: Evolutionary Robotics From Intelligent Robotics to Artificial Life, International Symposium, Tokyo, Japan, Proceedings. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. (ed. T. Gomi), Springer-Verlag Berlin. pg. 110-120.
  2. Jacob, F.: Evolution and tinkering. Science 196 (1977) 1161–1166.
  3. Garland, T., Jr.: Testing the predictions of symmorphosis: conceptual and methodological issues. Pages 40–47 in Principles of Animal Design: The Optimization and Symmorphosis Debate, E. R. Weibel, L. Bolis, and C. R. Taylor, eds. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, U.K. (1998).
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