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  • It is a thrill to be here at a conference

  • that's devoted to "Inspired by Nature" -- you can imagine.

  • And I'm also thrilled to be in the foreplay section.

  • Did you notice this section is foreplay?

  • Because I get to talk about one of my favorite critters,

  • which is the Western Grebe. You haven't lived

  • until you've seen these guys do their courtship dance.

  • I was on Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park,

  • which is a long, skinny lake with sort of mountains upside down in it,

  • and my partner and I have a rowing shell.

  • And so we were rowing, and one of these Western Grebes came along.

  • And what they do for their courtship dance is, they go together,

  • the two of them, the two mates, and they begin to run underwater.

  • They paddle faster, and faster, and faster, until they're going so fast

  • that they literally lift up out of the water,

  • and they're standing upright, sort of paddling the top of the water.

  • And one of these Grebes came along while we were rowing.

  • And so we're in a skull, and we're moving really, really quickly.

  • And this Grebe, I think, sort of, mistaked us for a prospect,

  • and started to run along the water next to us,

  • in a courtship dance -- for miles.

  • It would stop, and then start, and then stop, and then start.

  • Now that is foreplay.

  • (Laughter)

  • I came this close to changing species at that moment.

  • Obviously, life can teach us something

  • in the entertainment section. Life has a lot to teach us.

  • But what I'd like to talk about today

  • is what life might teach us in technology and in design.

  • What's happened since the book came out --

  • the book was mainly about research in biomimicry --

  • and what's happened since then is architects, designers, engineers --

  • people who make our world -- have started to call and say,

  • we want a biologist to sit at the design table

  • to help us, in real time, become inspired.

  • Or -- and this is the fun part for me -- we want you to take us out

  • into the natural world. We'll come with a design challenge

  • and we find the champion adapters in the natural world, who might inspire us.

  • So this is a picture from a Galapagos trip that we took

  • with some wastewater treatment engineers; they purify wastewater.

  • And some of them were very resistant, actually, to being there.

  • What they said to us at first was, you know, we already do biomimicry.

  • We use bacteria to clean our water. And we said,

  • well, that's not exactly being inspired by nature.

  • That's bioprocessing, you know; that's bio-assisted technology:

  • using an organism to do your wastewater treatment

  • is an old, old technology called "domestication."

  • This is learning something, learning an idea, from an organism and then applying it.

  • And so they still weren't getting it.

  • So we went for a walk on the beach and I said,

  • well, give me one of your big problems. Give me a design challenge,

  • sustainability speed bump, that's keeping you from being sustainable.

  • And they said scaling, which is the build-up of minerals inside of pipes.

  • And they said, you know what happens is, mineral --

  • just like at your house -- mineral builds up.

  • And then the aperture closes, and we have to flush the pipes with toxins,

  • or we have to dig them up.

  • So if we had some way to stop this scaling --

  • and so I picked up some shells on the beach. And I asked them,

  • what is scaling? What's inside your pipes?

  • And they said, calcium carbonate.

  • And I said, that's what this is; this is calcium carbonate.

  • And they didn't know that.

  • They didn't know that what a seashell is,

  • it's templated by proteins, and then ions from the seawater

  • crystallize in place to create a shell.

  • So the same sort of a process, without the proteins,

  • is happening on the inside of their pipes. They didn't know.

  • This is not for lack of information; it's a lack of integration.

  • You know, it's a silo, people in silos. They didn't know

  • that the same thing was happening. So one of them thought about it

  • and said, OK, well, if this is just crystallization

  • that happens automatically out of seawater -- self-assembly --

  • then why aren't shells infinite in size? What stops the scaling?

  • Why don't they just keep on going?

  • And I said, well, in the same way

  • that they exude a protein and it starts the crystallization --

  • and then they all sort of leaned in --

  • they let go of a protein that stops the crystallization.

  • It literally adheres to the growing face of the crystal.

  • And, in fact, there is a product called TPA

  • that's mimicked that protein -- that stop-protein --

  • and it's an environmentally friendly way to stop scaling in pipes.

  • That changed everything. From then on,

  • you could not get these engineers back in the boat.

  • The first day they would take a hike,

  • and it was, click, click, click, click. Five minutes later they were back in the boat.

  • We're done. You know, I've seen that island.

  • After this,

  • they were crawling all over. They would snorkel

  • for as long as we would let them snorkel.

  • What had happened was that they realized that there were organisms

  • out there that had already solved the problems

  • that they had spent their careers trying to solve.

  • Learning about the natural world is one thing;

  • learning from the natural world -- that's the switch.

  • That's the profound switch.

  • What they realized was that the answers to their questions are everywhere;

  • they just needed to change the lenses with which they saw the world.

  • 3.8 billion years of field-testing.

  • 10 to 30 -- Craig Venter will probably tell you;

  • I think there's a lot more than 30 million -- well-adapted solutions.

  • The important thing for me is that these are solutions solved in context.

  • And the context is the Earth --

  • the same context that we're trying to solve our problems in.

  • So it's the conscious emulation of life's genius.

  • It's not slavishly mimicking --

  • although Al is trying to get the hairdo going --

  • it's not a slavish mimicry; it's taking the design principles,

  • the genius of the natural world, and learning something from it.

  • Now, in a group with so many IT people, I do have to mention what

  • I'm not going to talk about, and that is that your field

  • is one that has learned an enormous amount from living things,

  • on the software side. So there's computers that protect themselves,

  • like an immune system, and we're learning from gene regulation

  • and biological development. And we're learning from neural nets,

  • genetic algorithms, evolutionary computing.

  • That's on the software side. But what's interesting to me

  • is that we haven't looked at this, as much. I mean, these machines

  • are really not very high tech in my estimation

  • in the sense that there's dozens and dozens of carcinogens

  • in the water in Silicon Valley.

  • So the hardware

  • is not at all up to snuff in terms of what life would call a success.

  • So what can we learn about making -- not just computers, but everything?

  • The plane you came in, cars, the seats that you're sitting on.

  • How do we redesign the world that we make, the human-made world?

  • More importantly, what should we ask in the next 10 years?

  • And there's a lot of cool technologies out there that life has.

  • What's the syllabus?

  • Three questions, for me, are key.

  • How does life make things?

  • This is the opposite; this is how we make things.

  • It's called heat, beat and treat --

  • that's what material scientists call it.

  • And it's carving things down from the top, with 96 percent waste left over

  • and only 4 percent product. You heat it up; you beat it with high pressures;

  • you use chemicals. OK. Heat, beat and treat.

  • Life can't afford to do that. How does life make things?

  • How does life make the most of things?

  • That's a geranium pollen.

  • And its shape is what gives it the function of being able

  • to tumble through air so easily. Look at that shape.

  • Life adds information to matter.

  • In other words: structure.

  • It gives it information. By adding information to matter,

  • it gives it a function that's different than without that structure.

  • And thirdly, how does life make things disappear into systems?

  • Because life doesn't really deal in things;

  • there are no things in the natural world divorced

  • from their systems.

  • Really quick syllabus.

  • As I'm reading more and more now, and following the story,

  • there are some amazing things coming up in the biological sciences.

  • And at the same time, I'm listening to a lot of businesses

  • and finding what their sort of grand challenges are.

  • The two groups are not talking to each other.

  • At all.

  • What in the world of biology might be helpful at this juncture,

  • to get us through this sort of evolutionary knothole that we're in?

  • I'm going to try to go through 12, really quickly.

  • One that's exciting to me is self-assembly.

  • Now, you've heard about this in terms of nanotechnology.

  • Back to that shell: the shell is a self-assembling material.

  • On the lower left there is a picture of mother of pearl

  • forming out of seawater. It's a layered structure that's mineral

  • and then polymer, and it makes it very, very tough.

  • It's twice as tough as our high-tech ceramics.

  • But what's really interesting: unlike our ceramics that are in kilns,

  • it happens in seawater. It happens near, in and near, the organism's body.

  • This is Sandia National Labs.

  • A guy named Jeff Brinker

  • has found a way to have a self-assembling coding process.

  • Imagine being able to make ceramics at room temperature

  • by simply dipping something into a liquid,

  • lifting it out of the liquid, and having evaporation

  • force the molecules in the liquid together,

  • so that they jigsaw together

  • in the same way as this crystallization works.

  • Imagine making all of our hard materials that way.

  • Imagine spraying the precursors to a PV cell, to a solar cell,

  • onto a roof, and having it self-assemble into a layered structure that harvests light.

  • Here's an interesting one for the IT world:

  • bio-silicon. This is a diatom, which is made of silicates.

  • And so silicon, which we make right now --

  • it's part of our carcinogenic problem in the manufacture of our chips --

  • this is a bio-mineralization process that's now being mimicked.

  • This is at UC Santa Barbara. Look at these diatoms.

  • This is from Ernst Haeckel's work.

  • Imagine being able to -- and, again, it's a templated process,

  • and it solidifies out of a liquid process -- imagine being able to have that

  • sort of structure coming out at room temperature.

  • Imagine being able to make perfect lenses.

  • On the left, this is a brittle star; it's covered with lenses

  • that the people at Lucent Technologies have found

  • have no distortion whatsoever.

  • It's one of the most distortion-free lenses we know of.

  • And there's many of them, all over its entire body.

  • What's interesting, again, is that it self-assembles.

  • A woman named Joanna Aizenberg, at Lucent,

  • is now learning to do this in a low-temperature process to create

  • these sort of lenses. She's also looking at fiber optics.

  • That's a sea sponge that has a fiber optic.

  • Down at the very base of it, there's fiber optics

  • that work better than ours, actually, to move light,

  • but you can tie them in a knot; they're incredibly flexible.

  • Here's another big idea: CO2 as a feedstock.

  • A guy named Geoff Coates, at Cornell, said to himself,

  • you know, plants do not see CO2 as the biggest poison of our time.

  • We see it that way. Plants are busy making long chains

  • of starches and glucose, right, out of CO2. He's found a way --

  • he's found a catalyst -- and he's found a way to take CO2

  • and make it into polycarbonates. Biodegradable plastics

  • out of CO2 -- how plant-like.

  • Solar transformations: the most exciting one.

  • There are people who are mimicking the energy-harvesting device

  • inside of purple bacterium, the people at ASU. Even more interesting,

  • lately, in the last couple of weeks, people have seen

  • that there's an enzyme called hydrogenase that's able to evolve

  • hydrogen from proton and electrons, and is able to take hydrogen up --

  • basically what's happening in a fuel cell, in the anode of a fuel cell

  • and in a reversible fuel cell.

  • In our fuel cells, we do it with platinum;

  • life does it with a very, very common iron.

  • And a team has now just been able to mimic

  • that hydrogen-juggling hydrogenase.

  • That's very exciting for fuel cells --

  • to be able to do that without platinum.

  • Power of shape: here's a whale. We've seen that the fins of this whale

  • have tubercles on them. And those little bumps

  • actually increase efficiency in, for instance,

  • the edge of an airplane -- increase efficiency by about 32 percent.

  • Which is an amazing fossil fuel savings,

  • if we were to just put that on the edge of a wing.

  • Color without pigments: this peacock is creating color with shape.

  • Light comes through, it bounces back off the layers;

  • it's called thin-film interference. Imagine being able

  • to self-assemble products with the last few layers

  • playing with light to create color.

  • Imagine being able to create a shape on the outside of a surface,

  • so that it's self-cleaning with just water. That's what a leaf does.

  • See that up-close picture?

  • That's a ball of water, and those are dirt particles.

  • And that's an up-close picture of a lotus leaf.

  • There's a company making a product called Lotusan, which mimics --

  • when the building facade paint dries, it mimics the bumps

  • in a self-cleaning leaf, and rainwater cleans the building.

  • Water is going to be our big, grand challenge:

  • quenching thirst.