8 - Atmosphere: Nature's Collaboration System

Uploaded by eventsatgoogle on 13.04.2010

>> QUENTIN: I'd like to bring out Janine Benyus, a biologist that Google picked to speak with
y'all at this point in the day and you may be wondering why. Let me just explain from
my point of view what's going on. You know, in industry or in the world we've built, I
guess, we have a kind of curve that begins with discovery and then gets codified by pattern-finding
into science, eventually standardized to engineering and then profitably made into manufacturing.
It's kind of a steady stream. But the discovery itself begins by observation and frequently
it's observation of nature. Looking for patterns in nature. In the early days of this, you
know, at the dawn of the scientific revolution even, the kind of tools we've had enabled
us to observe discreet things. As our tools have improved, we've built an understanding
around connections, larger patterns, and collaborative behavior in nature and Janine Benyus is a
biologist specializing in the observation and explication of collaborative behavior
in nature, which I think will inform much of the world we're building now. She's the
author of six books, including "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." She's also
the president of The Biomimicry Guild, an organization that she founded to establish
her research. And, Janine, come out and tell us what you've seen. All right. Thanks. [pause]
>> BENYUS: Thanks, Quentin. So this is another planet heard from. I know that this is going
to be kind of an interesting diversion from the cloud down to Earth. The organizers of
this asked me to come and give you sort of a mental palate cleanser, if you will, at
the end of the day. And I realized when I did my rehearsal and I saw this, I thought
it probably was maybe not the wisest choice to have a ten-foot tall ball of dung as the
palate cleanser, but that's just to show you that biologists have our own brand of geekiness.
And actually these organisms--dung beetles--thank God for them--they collaboratively wind up
burying all of the dung in the very dry parts of Africa, for instance, and without them
the soils would be even less fertile than they are. So it's an amazing feat. I come
to a lot of companies as a biologist and--to do what's called biomimicry, which is a collaborative
sport. Biomimicry is biologists at the design table working with engineers and designers
and architects. Inventors. People who make our world. And we bring in biological inspiration
to them and then they take those design principles from the natural world and invent in new ways.
Usually cleaner, greener ways that sip energy and shave material use and skew toxins. In
your world, biologically inspired computing is actually a very mature field on the software
side. So you have everything from, you know, neural nets to genetic algorithms and evolutionary
computing all the way to, you know, looking at immune systems for antivirus suggestions.
If you go to Amazon and you look up biologically inspired computing, you'll find about 100--last
count, about 126 books on biologically inspired computing, so it really is one of the more
mature fields. There's also biology coming into engineering and design. If you go to
Japan now, you'll be riding what's called a bullet train, but it no longer has that
rounded front. It now has a spear-like front inspired by a kingfisher. The engineer was
actually a birder and his boss told him, "Quiet this train," because as it goes into tunnels,
it builds up a pressure wave and then as it exits, creates a sonic boom. So his answer
was to look at this kingfisher, which goes into the water with no turbulence whatsoever
in that beak. Turns out that train now goes 10% faster and saves about 15% in electricity.
Or you can look at lotus-inspired self-cleaning paints. This is something that's coming to
the United States. It's been in Europe for a long time. It's based on the fact that leaves
of many plants, including the lotus, are actually really bumpy. Causes water to ball up and
pearl away dirt. It's called the lotus effect. Or you can look at something that's very slow
moving. This shark is actually a basking shark. It's a loafing shark. The Galapagos shark.
And interested scientists because it had no bacteria. Even though it loafed, had no bacteria
on its surface. So then we were looking for perhaps there was a poison involved, but there's
not. Turns out it's done--it repels bacteria just with a surface texture that's now been
mimicked on a film. Sharklet technologies creates this film that repels bacteria, gives
them a too-tough a surface to be able to land on. So for hospitals--Next time you go into
a hospital, you might be thanking a shark for not getting a hospital-acquired infection.
So there's lots of companies that are starting to bring biology into design. A lot of Fortune
50 companies. And often, we'll go in--I have a company of consultants and we'll go in and
we'll be solving a very small technical problem and then management will come and say, "Wait
a minute. What are some ubiquitous patterns in the natural world? Are there any metapatterns
that actually could help me run my company better?" And one of the largest ones is what
you're talking about today, which is collaboration. Interestingly, the scientific literature is
full of a whole new look at how communities get along, how players in an ecosystem get
along. For years, we focused on the negative interactions. Parasitism, predation. And now
we're beginning to realize that these interactions are really dwarfed. The competitive interactions
are dwarfed by the collaborative ones. Actually, what makes ecosystems run well--Ecosystems
like prairies and coral reefs and forests that last for long periods of time on a landscape
before changing, those ecosystems run on symbiotic, plus-plus, beneficial, mutually beneficial
relationships between organisms. And in fact, interestingly, we're looking at the same data
now and seeing another layer that we never saw before. So for instance, when you go to
a tropical place like Costa Rica and you see those air plants that are on branches. Those
bromeliads, the question always was, "Why does the tree allow that plant to sort of
park itself up there to be squatting on that branch?" 'Cause often, it gets so heavy. Builds
up soil and residue and organic residue. This layer of soil builds and it'll get so heavy,
it'll break the branch. So the riddle was, "Why would a tree allow that to happen?" Then
we started to get up in those canopy walkways and do some research up there and realized
that it's not a one-way relationship. It's a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship.
The tree branch is actually putting roots up into the soil that the bromeliads create
and getting nutrients from it. So there's all of these sort of reenvisioning things
that used to look parasitic to us. Suddenly we realized, "Hey, maybe they're mutualistic."
So life is a team sport. I mean, even you guys sitting here. You're 30 trillion cells
in each body. Right? That's here. And if I was to take one of your cells from your body
and put it in a petri dish--a skin cell--it would crawl around like an amoeba. It would,
like, go after food. It's an individual. But interestingly, it's a colony of collaborating
cells. And, you know, it's a good thing that your liver doesn't keep your-- You know, doesn't
ransom your heart. There's not a conflict, right, between these different tissue systems.
So when you were eating lunch, right after lunch, you were digesting. So your digestive
cells were really happy. They were getting what they wanted. But then if the fire alarm
had gone off, that would have shut down and you would--so that your leg muscles could
run you out of here. Because in some way, there's a whole body awareness. Each cell
knows it's part of a larger collective. Now, services are shared. This is another very
new thing that we're realizing. When I went to school, I went to school actually for forestry.
So I learned that, you know, back in those days, people were saying, "Okay, every tree
is in a, you know, bloodsport competition for water, sunlight, space." Now we're beginning
to realize that in the canopy of a tree, in the canopy of the forest, the trees that are
closest to the Sun are fixing carbon dioxide into sugars and starches. And when we radio
tag that carbon, we'll find it in a Trillium, in a bush half an acre away. It's not a kin
relationship. They're not related to each other. They don't share the same genes. But
carbon--It's called carbon allocation studies. Carbon is getting moved around the ecosystem.
There's now studies showing that water is getting-- Water molecules are getting moved
around the ecosystem. The roots are connected underground via threads of fungus. Fungal
helpers that we think might be causing that sort of movement. So it's a very more complexed
and nuanced ideas than we originally thought. Ecosystems run on two things. Sunlight and
real-time information. That's a picture there in the lower right of just the negative interactions,
the food webs. Who eats who? And look at how that-- For a coral reef. Now imagine if you
had mutually beneficial relationships mapped as well. Would be a very complex adaptive
ecosystem. Very complex society running on real-time signaling. So collaboration. What
I tried to do is look at all the instances of collaboration in the natural world. And
this is a--You know, this is a society that's knitted together over 3.8 billion years and
a lot of really optimized systems have made it. Others are in the fossil record, okay?
So there's some validity to this sort of metapattern look at collaboration. So as you can see,
these are the categories I'm gonna divide it up into. And if you look at these categories
of when it makes sense, you'll see times in your own businesses when this sort of thing
makes sense. Finding needles in a haystack, for instance. This is something--As biologists,
we're in a virtual company. We're all scattered all around. A client will ask us, you know?
Boeing will say, "How does nature reduce vibration?" And we'll have ten biologists leap into the
biological literature, which is in the cloud. It's full-text databases. And we have to find
that information, but not step on each other's toes in doing it. So we have to discreetly
make sure that we're always finding it without making redundancy, so we use Google Apps constantly,
so that when you go to get a paper, the first thing you do is see if anybody else has already
done that paper in real-time, so that we don't miss the needle in a haystack and we don't
get on each other's--step on each other's toes. In the fall, species that are not related--Mixed-species
flocking happens and that's because it's difficult to find the last little bits of food that
are spread around. Think of food as data. And so what happens is that these woodpeckers
and chickadees will get together and somebody will find a mother lode of insects and call
the others over. So it's literally--And they'll do this just at this one time of year. Collaborative
water harvest. Organisms, especially in this part of the world where there's fog that comes
in, they're gathering water--A redwood. A 100-foot Redwood will gather up to 4 inches
of rain, the equivalent, in 1 night of fog gathering and of course that water drips down
and everybody uses it. The whole system uses it. Water storage is another really interesting
one. This work was done at UC Berkley and it's a new sort of understanding about how
tropical rainforests work. We realized that even in a dry season when plants shouldn't
be photosynthesizing because they lose water vapor, there were all these clouds above the
tropical rainforest. They were photosynthesizing. Where were they getting the water in the dry
season? Turns out, 10% of annual rainfall is stored by deep taprooted trees. In tropical
rainforests, there are a few shrubs and small trees that have deep taproots. When it's raining,
they gather the water from their shallow roots, push it down the taproots and out into the
soil. And then in the dry season, they pull it back up, distribute it through the shallow
roots and back out into the soil and the whole system takes advantage of it. Collaborative
water storage. So like the dung beetle, a lot of organisms, small organisms are accomplishing
great feats through collaboration. Rule-based collaboration. Coral, for instance, are very
small organisms, but together, they aggregate calcium carbonate and make these enormous
reefs. Think Great Barrier Reef. Things that can be seen from space. The basketball-sized
wasp nest in your rafters created by many wasps together. This is a picture of an ant
harvester mound. Again, very small organisms by the millions will create these mounds and
underneath, you know, six feet of bedroom chambers. Amazing feats. Web-creating caterpillars.
Collaborative hunting is--It's more than just having lots of senses out there, if you're
in a pack or you're in a pride of lions. It's the fact that as a relatively small mammal,
you would never as an individual be able to take down the large animals that these critters
do. So it really-- Collaboration allows you to really multiply your own abilities. You
can multiply your senses. If you're with a partner, you can look two ways at once. And
for us--Again, for data finding, if I can send--If I can send all 60 of my contractors
out on a particularly interesting, nutty problem and as long as we're not overlapping with
each other, as long as we can do real-time search, we can find the needle in the haystack,
because we're multiplying our senses. Bees, interestingly, will--They find nectar and
they do that waggle dance and you hear about that. But the other thing that they do that's
really interesting and the science was kind of daylighted during voting the last Presidential
election, because they do this thing that's similar to what's called range voting. When
they want to--When they want to find a new place to have their swarm, a new hollow, a
tree hollow, they'll actually send out a few scouts. Interestingly, who makes the decisions?
Who chooses the best nests sites? 5% of the hive go out. They're the scouts. They go out
and they may find 20 different sites and each one comes back with their favorite site and
they dance like crazy for hours. And what happens is the other ones watch like in a
gallery and they say, "Hmm. This one is dancing very vigorously, very excited about the nest
site. I'm gonna go check it out too." So other bees will go out and when they come back,
they'll either reinforce the vote or they'll go to some other nest site and it's like caucus
voting. And by the end--it'll take about two weeks--they average these sorts of votes and
they all--One day, there's a quorum. They decide, you know? It comes down to the last
two groups, for instance, that are dancing vigorously and they all decide and they fly
off. Really interesting. Collaborative problem solving. This is an organism that, you know,
you don't think of these things as sentient. You don't think of--They are literally-- This
is a fungus-like organism called a slime mold, which is composed of many, many individuals
that come together in a collective and then just kind of stream in a protoplasm. And they
make these networks to move nutrients back and forth and they pare away anywhere that
they're not needed and reinforce the networks which are most--the optimal way to move the
nutrients around. So somebody-- And, you know, this is one of those Golden Fleece Award winners.
Somebody put oat flakes--That is a picture of the cities around Tokyo. Those are oat
flakes. That's a slime mold fanning out and then paring back where it's not needed and
in 26 hours, it drew the Tokyo subway. The Tokyo and surrounds railway system. Really
interesting. Sampling. Organisms like chimps--A lot of primates do this. They'll sample new
food sources like this pine cone, which is probably not gonna be a very good one and
they rotate the sampling so that, you know, there's not one organism that's getting--one
individual that's getting a lot of stomach aches and then watch. And it's always the
young, teenage males that do it, by the way. I don't know what that means. Collaborative
navigating. This is very interesting. If you have a school of fish, is it a wisdom of crowds
thing? How do they decide where to move? And really it is a--the leadership position moves.
If there's a predator on this flank of the school and they're reacting to it, the whole
school will move away. Or if there's food over here, they'll all move towards it. Lot
of interesting work going on around how do they decide. Long-lived organisms like elephants
have a collective memory. Their collaboration has to do with remembering where the water
holes are, for instance. [pause] So you're extending your senses, but there's other parts
of your physiology really that get extended by hooking up in collaborative partnerships.
This is an interesting one. Again, this is pretty new research. This is what the headlines
were in the science press. Were "the real 'Avatar.'" These are sulfur-reducing bacteria
that are in the ocean in the mud of the ocean. Now some--By the trillions and trillions and
trillions, of course. The ones that are very, very far down, we couldn't--scientists could
not figure out how they were metabolizing. Because what they do is they reduce sulfur,
meaning they have to offload an electron in order to metabolize, in order to eat. They
offload an electron and they have to give it to oxygen. Well, there's no oxygen down
there. You see those little wires? Those are nanowires. Literally wires that are created.
And those bacteria are transferring electrons up through the mud to the upper layers of
mud where there is oxygen and the bacteria up there are offloading the electrons for
them. Now, if this electrical symbiosis theory is correct, then we're talking about the largest
social interacting colony. Much larger than anything. Even the large fungal and Aspen
clones that we've looked at. There's a lot going on as science is starting to realize
this collaboration. Collaborative cooling. Termites keep their mounds at a steady 87
degrees because they're farming fungus. This is one of the biomimetic ideas that is being
taken. A lot of architects now are looking at how that cooling happens. What is it? What's
special about those tunnels and those chambers? And this is a building in Harari that has
no air conditioning that's based on this termite mound. Energy saving. Extending your physiology
by saving energy. Trout. Turns out that as trout are moving--as they're moving their
back fin back and forth and back and forth, they're creating vortexes in the water. Kármán
streets, they're called. Other fish will come up and literally surf those, be slung forward.
So they're collaboratively swimming upstream. 14% energy savings, if you ever wondered,
for geese flying in a flock. And of course, snakes in hibernaculum staying warm in the
winter by the hundreds. These guys in a huddle. You've seen "March of the Penguins," and how
they take turns. The outside ones will go in to get warm and the inside ones will go
out. Collaborative energy saving. Same things with swarms of butterflies that migrate through
Esalen. If you've ever been on that highway 1, there's huge swarms of these Monarch butterflies
and they're saving energy. Swapping skills. So you can extend your physiology. You can
extend your sense. Multiply your senses or you can barter. So trees cannot get phosphorous
out of soil, but they need it. Fungus wrap around their roots. They can get the phosphorous.
They give it to the tree, but because they're under the ground, they're not photosynthesizing.
Tree gives them carbon. It's literally a barter. Collaborative health care. Grooming. Oxpeckers
on hippo's backs. Keeping each other clean. Another nutrient that's really limited is
nitrogen, because nitrogen in the air, plants can't use it. It has to be processed first
and so you see those many, many plants have these borders. That's a root of a legume pea-like
plant and those nodules are filled with bacteria. Bacteria create--take the atmospheric nitrogen
that's in the air around the soil particles, turn it into a bioavailable nitrogen, without
which, none of us would be eating. Collaborative child care. Lots of organisms actually have
kindergartens--they're called kindergartens--so that the parents can go off and work while
some helper giraffe, for instance, or dolphins, will take care of the young in these creches.
[pause] Hooking up in the natural world is a way to make the most of your habitat. It's
also a way to reduce your risk. And I would argue that that collaboration among your employees,
it's the same thing. These are live oaks. And live oaks are one of the trees that were
in the Katrina hurricane. There were 740 live oaks on St. Charles Street and only 4 of them
died, which is pretty amazing. Some of these are, like, 1,200-year-old organisms. What
you don't see in that picture is that under the ground, their roots are intertwined. So
when the wind hits, it's not hitting one tree. It's hitting literally a phalanx of trees
that are holding each other in place. Things you never learned in school. Collaborative
security. These fibers. These filaments in the blue mussel. They glue the mussel to the
pier or to the bottom of your boat. But what we didn't realize until recently--Herb Waite
down in Santa Barbara realizes that it's a communication device. 'Cause when a periwinkle
snail comes and drills into one of these guys, as they're dying, they yank on their tether.
And the one next to them picks up that signal and yanks on its tether and it goes all through
the colony and I wish I could be here to see something like this. They all--When they get
the message, they all jettison away. They all let go of those byssus threads and they
move away, while the one is the sacrificial sort of John Revere--Paul Revere. [pause]
If you're in a flock, you can confuse a predator like this Peregrine falcon or you can swamp
them. In Montana, at the tops of mountains in late August and September, grizzly bears
go up to the very, very tops of mountains for the ladybird beetle migration and they
pick them up by the handful. But because there are so many of them, you have a chance of
surviving. If it's just one, it's 100% chance you're gonna get eaten. If there are two of
you, your odds go to 50-50. Cleaning, being--This clownfish being in the stinging tentacles
of the anemone, being protected by the anemone, but as it excretes, it's giving nutrients
to the anemone. So it's a security-food swap. Inside of coral--Coral reefs cannot survive
without a border called a zooxanthellae. This little organism that photosynthesizes for
them. Now, interestingly, as climate is changing, as waters are warming, the coral is kicking
out the border and taking in new borders. Zooxanthellae that are adapted to warmer waters,
for instance. So there's a change in the collaboration based on what the organism needs. Organisms
divvy up the habitat by collaborating. So if you see, in this picture, this mixed flock
of species feeding. You know, competition for the same--Going head-to-head for the same
clam is too expensive. It's a negative-- Competition is a negative-negative interaction. So organisms
over long periods of evolution try to get to plus-plus. It just makes sense. Or at least
coexistence where they're not bothering each other. So they change their bill. They change
their techniques. Some, like the owl says, "I'll do the rodents during the night and
the Red-tailed Hawk can do it during the day over fields and the goshawk can do it in the
forest." So they divvy up the habitat. It's not an overt form of cooperation, but a covert
one. So we know the benefits of cooperation. So in your companies, you may think about
when are conditions right for collaboration. So if you want to find needles in a haystack,
that's when information is widely scattered, which obviously it is. I know in my own work.
When you need a moonshot, when you really need to do a large project but there are not
many of you. Information overload. When you need multiple senses to make sense, to analyze
information overload. Collaboration works. Working in all time zones. We work with a
company called HOK and they're all around the world, so we do what's called chasing
the Sun and by collaboration, some of us are always awake working. Lean staffing. We're
able to stay lean by doing collaborative contracting. And without things like Google Apps, I don't
know how we did it before, frankly. We have a thing that we say to each other. If you're
sending a document via email, you should be sending a Google doc link. It just makes sense.
Competition from other groups. If you're in a group in the natural world-- If you're in
a group, you are more likely to collaborate with your group members if there's another
group out there that you're in competition with. Divvying up the habitat. This is any
place you have a crowded market. I really think these collaborative tools allow you
to explore sort of blue oceans rather than fighting head-to-head with each other, with
other staff members, you know, sort of going after the same clam, the same data. So what
I see happening in the natural world and certainly what's happening, you know, here in this conference
and in the tech arch in general is that we're moving from connection tools--those are neurons--to
collaboration tools. To actually an internet that allows us to collaborate. We--Another
example of how, boy, our thinking has changed. Several years ago, we brought up this idea
that we should put onto the web all biological information. This was our Google S goal. To
organize biological information by function so you could search, "how does nature filter?"
or "how does nature adhere?" and up would come biological strategies. Because we were
the bottleneck. We're a small, boutique consulting firm and we wanted to really spread this information
to any inventor anywhere in the world. And so we started to do this and we thought it
was a digital library. But our users have told us it's not a digital library. It's a
social networking tool. Biologists are finding engineers and people in biomimicry community
are finding each other and they're collaborating in real-time. What's interesting is that we
also tried to--You know, we started for the first 2,000 nature strategies, we did them
by hand. A team of ten people for a year reading natural history information. And we realized,
"we can't do this." This is like scribes in the Medieval days, you know, like, scribing
out, you know, making copies of "The Bible." It will take forever. So we hooked up with
Ed Wilson--E.O. Wilson-- whose TED wish was to create a web site for every species on
Earth. So all the scientists in the world are contributing to his site and we have a
data field on his site that says, "What can you learn from this organism? Functional adaptations."
In real-time, when they fill that in, it goes to our site. When our users fill in what they
could learn, what industry applications they think would be cool, it goes to their site.
That collaboration, mash-ups between two sites, I think, is incredibly powerful. So if you're
interested in figuring out a little bit more about collaboration and some other networking
sort of phenomenon in the natural world, please do go to asknature.org. Biomimicry Guild is
the company and Biomimicry Institute's our non-profit. [pause] And our--the field of
biomimicry is collaborative by design. We're collaborating with nature in trying to figure
out designs that will help us stay on this planet as a welcomed species and we're collaborating
with each other from biology to all kinds of professions that are making our world,
but that have never taken a biology class before. And this is--this is sort of my favorite
organism when I thought about coming here and I thought about what you guys do every
day. This is called a cuttlefish. The fastest refreshed screen rate that you can possibly
imagine. This is one of those organisms that it's got the ability to completely change,
chameleon-like, its colors based on what it slides in front of. So if it slides in front
of a coral reef, like that pink coral reef, it will turn pink and that screen refresh
is so, so fast. It's a kind of a totem for me that there are so many things that we have
yet to learn, 'cause as you can see, there's no outlet. There's no power cord coming from
this guy, you know? There's no backlighting. How do they do that? That's the job that I'm
lucky enough to ask every day. We have a little bit more time and I would be happy to collaborate
with you and have you ask any questions that you might have. Yeah? [man speaking indistinctly]
What's that? Oh, we do, okay. Okay, they told me that I might need to stretch this a little
bit. Okay, thank you very much.