The Naked Brain

In the SciFi novel I’m writing, All the Stars are Suns, set into the future, neuroscience has advanced far enough that we can model and build biomimetic analogs of neural functions, to the point were we can fabricate inorganic artificial brains.  These brains, being biomimetic would even have human emotions, if we so chose.  Sounds too far fetched?  Obviously, I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be including them in my story.  Although I believe that we are many decades, perhaps even centuries away from truly fabricating human like inorganic brains, the state of the art today is perhaps a lot more advanced than you might think.

For example, take a look a this video from NATURE:

I imagine that someday we will be able to convert images like this into wiring diagrams.  No, I’m NOT a transhumanist.  I do NOT believe that this will allow anyone to “upload” their personality and memories to an inorganic copy of themselves.  Instead, I foresee that through imaging many brains we will come to understand the basic functions of the neural nets and model them, even create physical instantiations of them, which will allow us to fabricate sophisticated neural net computers that function much as our brains do.  With experience, they will learn, just as humans learn.  They will be themselves, not carbon copies of us.  And they will have their own quirks, since they will not have had the ongoing learning experiences while their brains rewire themselves as ours do from infancy to adulthood.  They will be “born” already mature, though untutored.  I’m exploring the ramifications of that type of “growing up” in my novel.

(Addendum 10/8/2015:  Here’s a paper on the development of a computer simulation of a TINY portion of the neocortex of a young rat’s brain.  Note that they needed a supercomputer to run it.  Thank goodness for Moore’s law.  Maybe someday we will be able to run such simulations on computers available on a start-up company’s budget.  Someday, neuroengneering will be a ‘thing’: )

The Greatest Technologist of All

Candice eetimesThose that have heard me speak on designing color displays will recognize a consistent refrain of carefully matching the capabilities of the display to that of the Human Vision System (HVS).  At times, to accomplish this, I take advantage of the design inspiration concept of biomimicry, the recognition that natural selection has already found a favorable solution through evolving forms toward a local optimum, given the constraints of the cost of time, energy, and materials that nature must use.  By taken a lesson from nature, we often can find that a good solution already exists.

But we must differentiate between taking inspiration from nature and actually using an evolved solution to essentially the same problem that we as designers, engineers, and inventors face.  Nature can provide abundant beauty in both form and color.  Many an artist as reflected that beauty in their work.  But this is not “biomimicry”… and just because an engineering solution bears a resemblance to something in nature, may even have been inspired by such, does not mean that it is being applied to the same problem.

Consider an example often touted in the press as being engineering biomicry, the curved impeller / propeller designed by Jay Harmon and manufactured by Pax Scientific.  Their impeller is often described as having been inspired by the calla lily or the spiral nautilus shell:

But, while it may have been inspired by the lovely curves of the flower, this impeller owes its design more to Archimedes’ screw than any evolutionary process to solve the problem of fluid mixing.

Similarly we must differentiate between merely using a natural biomaterial, though it may be used for exactly the same purpose for which it was selected for by nature.  For example, antibiotics are most often discovered in nature, since many organisms must fend off bacteria.  But that shouldn’t be called biomimicry.

So what would be an example of biomimicry?  For one of the most obvious example, one need look no further than up into the sky at the nearly constant traffic of airplanes.  The early pioneers of aviation, starting with Leonardo DaVinci, Otto Lilienthal, John Montgomery, onto the Wright Brothers, all took careful note how nature solved the problem of flight and emulated her.

Sometimes engineers and nature come up with the same solution.  Albert Einstein was a great inventor as well as a famous physicist.  One of his most important inventions was the reverse flow heat exchanger, perhaps the most efficient heat exchanger yet developed, or evolved.  It turns out that many marine mammals, notably the cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) use exactly this same mechanism to supply oxygen to their skin will retaining body heat.  I don’t know if Einstein knew that or not, but I doubt it.  So, should we call that an example of biomimicry, or merely that great minds think alike?

In any case, if one wonders why a high tech inventor like myself bothered to study not only physics, but psychology and biology, one need look to further than at nature, the greatest technologist of all.