Welcome to Bionics & Computation



As I head into my final semester at NID, I decided to take on the challenge of doing a self-sponsored project in a domain that is quite new to me, but at the same time has its grounding in the work that I have been doing for the past few years. At the time of writing this, I have no clue how this project will turn out to be. I will be working and co-creating with my guide and mentor - Sahil Thappa - for this project. I am taking a leap of faith and simply following what my instincts tell me to do.






I chose to work in this domain as, throughout my years at NID, I have always been wondering how to combine the technicalities of coding, mathematics, physics, and computation with art, materials, and processes. Surely there is something that lies at that intersection of technology and art, and yes many people call it design. But still, I couldn't get a satisfactory answer. In some ways, this project is my attempt at trying to answer this question in hopes that it will pave the way for my professional work going ahead. I seek to find the perfect balance between technology and art, between analysis and intuition, and between my left brain and right brain.


Recently as I was doing my systems project, I discovered many ideas relating to cybernetics, systems theory, complex theory, and feedback loops. A lot of these ideas were new in the 50s and '60s and plenty of research has been done in specific domain areas taking these topics ahead. They were rightfully called the 'frontiers' of science at the time. Perhaps what is exciting in these fields is how they take various ideas from very varied fields of science and combine them to show some pretty astounding results. In a way, it is similar to what I am seeking to answer. After digging deeper, you find out that many of the core concepts discovered in these fields relate pretty much directly back to nature. It is like a full circle and it seems like humanity is just on the tip of the iceberg in discovering these ideas. I find this fascinating. Also, the fact that one can play around with these concepts with pretty much any tool, as they are fundamental in nature. Naturally, I tend to use computers as a tool to explore these ideas and computers open up vast avenues of exploration with their advantages and disadvantages. Somewhere along the months of exploring this idea and having to decide on a graduation project, I chose Bionics & Computation as the path ahead. This series of blog posts will serve as documentation for my graduation project where I want to write about the explorations, technicalities, and mysticism involved along this journey. This very first post will give you a brief overview of the scope of my project, what I aim to do, inspirations, and further directions.




Physarum polycephalum - a single-celled organism with a brain. It is capable of solving pathfinding problems, optimizing distribution and network efficiency as well as capable of having memory




This project encompasses an inquiry in looking at research and design applications of computational tools and industrial processes to model natural phenomena using the bottom-up approach to biomimicry and bionics. It seeks to use a maker's approach to develop tools and processes for experimentation and inquiry. The goal is to innovate tools, methods, processes, forms, and materials for sustainable design.


For this project, I thought having an end goal of materializing the computation is important. If I want to gain a holistic understanding and see where it can be applied in a professional setting, having a robust end deliverable that has gone through all stages of the design process is important. Yes, majorly I see this project falling into the experimental design category but I also want to see overlaps between commercial design and responsible design.



Part 1 - Context


The Tools Perspective and Industry 4.0


We as homo-sapiens greatly appreciate tools. We worship tools, experiment with tools, innovate tools, think with tools, and have formed our present dominance on Earth with the aid of tools. We often think that tools are the means of doing things, but perhaps we can look at a different perspective: Tools are the idea for means of doing things. We see in the first scene of 2001: The Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick where the apes find out how the bone can be used as a thing to hit and thus begin establishing dominance on Earth up to the point where the bone transitions into a spaceship. Bones as tools existed everywhere on the Earth for any animal to establish dominance, however, it was the idea of using a bone to hit which was the ultimate tool. Today our tools have become increasingly complex and have shaped our reality. The greatest scientific discoveries of the last centuries were initiated when existing tools were improved to observe quantum phenomena only to realize that we had been thinking of it all wrong. This ushered the quantum age and motivated new tools to be built in this direction and as a consequence changed the paradigm and foundations of mathematics and physics, which had an impact on every branch of knowledge.


It becomes imperative for any design inquiry and experiments to look closely at the tools employed for the means to be achieved. It is said that most innovations are a result of the combination of technology and design. Innovation in technology is really an extension of innovation in tools for innovative design. New tools open up avenues for thinking and processes. In the context of Industry 4.0, we are already seeing a rapid change in technology, industries, societal patterns, and processes. A part of this phase is the joining of technologies like artificial intelligence, gene editing, and advanced robotics which blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds. Neri Oxman describes this as the age of entanglement where she proposes the four domains of creative exploration - science, engineering, design, and art, and that knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within particular disciplinary boundaries, but is entangled.



This inquiry will seek to build and innovate new tools and processes by using knowledge of various disciplines in the Industry 4.0 context.




Bionics & Biomimicry


It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the twentieth century was the century of physics and the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. Biology is now bigger than physics and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science throughout the twenty-first century. Biology also has more impact because of its economic consequences, its ethical implications, or because of its effects on human welfare. (Our Biotech Future by Freeman Dyson). Throughout history, architects and designers have looked towards nature as an inspiration source for different kinds of forms, techniques, and functions. It was trivial at that time the way architects and designers understood nature. They looked to biology as a source of inspiration from the beginning of science. They had a superficial way of imitating and mimicking the forms of plants and animals. But decades ago architects found other ways of understanding nature as methods and analogies of growth and evolution. Those architects had changed the way of design in a very prominent way as was obvious in their writings - for instance, the bold ideas of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. This is in conjunction with the field of bionics where biological methods and systems found in nature are applied to technology and design.


There are two ways to look at biomimicry as described by Moheb Sabry Aziz and Amr Y. El sherif in their paper “Biomimicry as an approach for bio-inspired structure with the aid of computation” - the Top-Down approach and the Bottom-Up approach. Both approaches are valid and bring a perspective to look at the vast space of nature and its application to problems.



The Top-Down approach or “Design looking to biology” starts with having a design problem and context at hand. The later stages seek nature for inspiration by drawing analogies and abstracting biological models for the design context. This is the conventional approach where the processes do not change drastically within designs and nature is simply used for inspiration and triggers. This is possible with automation in manufacturing and new technologies which allow more freedom in design and was well suited to Industry 3.0.


The Bottom-Up approach or “Biology influencing Design” depends on previous biological research and solutions, not looking towards nature for solutions. This knowledge is then applied to the design context. This relatively new approach to design looks toward nature and drastically re-imagines new methods and manufacturing processes. Currently, this approach is limited to a few experimental design studios and scientific research. This opens up a vast area of opportunity for sustainable design and processes which are more in sync with the environment and everyone around. Industry 4.0 brings the right fertile ground for using this approach even in a commercial way. The tools and processes from Industry 4.0 are vital for this approach and are most probably the future for biologically inspired design.



Silk Pavilion by Neri Oxman and Mediated Matter Group. The dome is constructed by using silkworms and guiding them with precomputed parts



Floraform by Nervous System. The forms are digitally grown and 3d printed by mimicking the natural growth process of flowers and other structures




This inquiry will focus on the bottoms-up approach to biomimicry and bionics and will seek to experiment with biological phenomena applied to forms, materials and processes for sustainable design.




Computation as a Tool


Kostas Terzidis is one of the Avant-garde architects who has a precise definition for computation and the difference between computation and computerization. ‘‘Computation is a term that differs from, but is often confused with, computerization. While computation is the procedure of calculating, i.e. determining something by mathematical or logical methods, computerization is the act of entering, processing, or storing information in a computer or a computer system” ‘‘Computerization is about automation, mechanization, digitization, and conversion. Generally, it involves the digitization of entities or processes that are preconceived, predetermined, and well defined. In contrast, computation is about the exploration of indeterminate, vague, unclear, and often ill-defined processes; because of its exploratory nature, computation aims at emulating or extending the human intellect. It is about rationalization, reasoning, logic, algorithm, deduction, induction, extrapolation, exploration, and estimation”.


As such computation becomes a good tool to explore natural phenomena and model natural processes to various applications. With Industry 4.0 and as our tools have become more and more computerized, there are more avenues to explore computation in places where little research has been done and vast explorations are possible. With so many open-source computerized tools that are easily available, the research has also become accessible where earlier it was confined to specialized labs with specialized equipment.


Computation also has the power to be continuous through space and time, all while having the ability to factor in hundreds of variables. This when coupled with the intention of translating computation to the physical world is a recipe for great innovations in forms, materials and processes. It is perhaps only surpassed by master craftsmen who have trained their minds for decades to automatically factor in many variables for their material and use their hands to make it in the physical world.




Works of Zaha Hadid Architects. Computation is extensively used for explorations, planning, and construction in their works



This inquiry will extensively use computation as a tool for explorations with the intent of translating the experiments to the physical world




Part 2 - Inquiry


Differential growth simulation by Jason Webb. Mimics natural growth seen in flower petals, corals and brain structures. It optimizes surfaces area within volume



The Brief


To experiment with the bottoms-up approach to biomimicry to be applied to forms, materials and, processes by using computation, custom tools and hands-on makers approach for sustainable design. To apply these methods and experiments to the real world and on various scales. To develop these further into prototypes or proof of concepts to test for manufacturing, feasibility, scale, and user adoption. To extrapolate the scenario to the future of sustainable design, manufacturing, and processes for sustainable futures.



Motivation


Nature has been around for millions of years. Some of the best-optimized solutions have evolved and all of them have been shaped without intent. Biomimicry and design offer tools to look at nature and build man-made solutions which are more optimized, efficient, and sustainable. The most accessible and powerful tools created by mankind have become computerized. Computation as a tool proves invaluable and a lot of research has already been done on using computation in optimization, generation, and problem-solving.


The potential in combining the natural and man-made processes for problem-solving holds vast potential. Though we are fast moving towards it, our current mass manufacturing processes and ways of designing have yet to fuse and combine in our way of thinking. With open-source and tools like 3d-printing, it is only a matter of time till we look at our tools and nature in a completely new way. To solve today’s complex problems it is imperative that we look towards a new and cross-disciplinary approach and combine the best of knowledge from multiple disciplines.


We see many examples of biomimicry used in design and art. Designers and artists alike look toward nature for inspiration and this has been happening for a few centuries. This top-down approach to biomimicry is something we are well versed in, where form, texture, color, and structure are used in the current design context. However, nature doesn’t work like this. The myriad of forms, colors, textures, and structures are all emergent properties that come about through the bottom-up natural processes of nature. Nature works on the cellular and atomic-scale while being contextualized in its larger environment and global scale. The bottoms-up approach to biomimicry or bionics is something we need to embrace in our current man-made design processes.



Dragonfly’s wing. The shape and size of the cell varies


To give one example, consider one of the fundamental aspects of nature - variation and irregularities. Even on the microscopic level, we see that forms and structures exist in a continuous variation that is brought about by real-world forces, evolution, and various factors. Even the human skin has vast variations of thickness, sweat glands, hair density, and wrinkles throughout our body and is not uniform.


With today’s tools of computation and computerized systems, it is very much possible to compute and deploy the kind of variation seen in nature on the fly. We need to think of more innovative ways in which computation can be leveraged from the bottom-up approach to design and build more sustainable futures.



Intent


This inquiry will bring new ways of bringing about form and manufacturing with the following intent:


  • Form constraints and optimizations

  • Solution space curation and variety

  • Physical data visualization

  • Sustainability with new materials and processes

  • Customization and personalization

  • Speed of manufacturing and processes

  • Localized context-based property manipulation

  • Cost optimization Interactions

  • Modularity Novel forms for functions and applications

  • Localizing manufacturing and use of materials


Triggers


The project will explore and study various aspects of nature and natural processes, including but not limited to:


  • Growth Fractals

  • Regeneration

  • Variation

  • Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Neural Networks

  • Complexity

  • Acoustics and Timbre

  • Diffusion

  • Feedback Loops



That's all for now! Hopefully I can continue writing these blog posts. Coming up, I am planning on writing about some technical aspects relating to biological forces and how they can relate to computation and manufacturing.