8 – Atmosphere: Nature’s Collaboration System

8 – Atmosphere: Nature’s Collaboration System


>>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.

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