Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

Bioinspired Design: Method in the Beautiful Madness?

April 9th, 2011 / in research horizons, workshop reports / by Erwin Gianchandani

Ashok Goel, Georgia TechThe following is a special contribution to this blog by Ashok Goel, Associate Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science in the School of Interactive Computing and Director of the Digital Intelligence Laboratory at Georgia Tech. He co-organized a NSF-funded Bioinspired Design Workshop earlier this month.

Examples of bioinspired design are all around us. We see it in Velcro, which was inspired by cockle burrs. We see it in self-cleansing paints that mimic the hydrophobic effect on surfaces of lotus leafs. We see it in robots that can climb vertical walls much like geckos. We see it in the windmill blades that are similar to the tubercles on humpback whale flippers. But where, one might ask, is the design theory in all of these “mad” applications?  What is the proverbial method in this beautiful “madness”?

Bioinspired Design WorkshopTo help raise these questions more clearly and precisely, the National Science Foundation sponsored a day-long Bioinspired Design Workshop — held on March 20, 2011, in Palo Alto, CA, in conjunction with the AAAI Spring Symposium on AI and Sustainable Design (see related blog post). I had the pleasure of co-chairing the workshop with my colleagues Daniel McAdams (Texas A&M University) and Robert Stone (Oregon State University). We structured it with several short talks, followed by breakout sessions to brainstorm about a research agenda for developing computational methods and tools for bioinspired design.

At the workshop, Janine Benyus (The Biomimicry Institute) described AskNature, a database of biological designs; Julian Vincent (University of Bath, UK), explained his work on BioTRIZ, a methodology for analyzing biological designs; Amaresh Chakrabarti (Indian Institute of Science) described Idea-Inspire, an interactive tool for supporting bioinspired design; Jeannette Yen (Georgia Institute of Technology) described her senior-level interdisciplinary course on biologically inspired design; Daniel McAdams presented a scheme for functional modeling of biological designs; and I released DANE, a knowledge base of functional models of biological designs. The breakout sessions focused on bioinspired sustainable design, biologically inspired complex system design, and education in bioinspired design, and were led to Mary Lou Maher (University of Maryland at College Park), Jami Shah (Arizona State University), and Craig Tovey (Georgia Institute of Technology), respectively.

The workshop generated a lot of discussion that was sometimes quite pointed. Perhaps the most important result of the workshop was a new understanding of the need for a design theory of bioinspired design that abstracts away from individual applications, and helps transform the promising paradigm into a principled methodology. This goal raises several hard computational problems such as: What knowledge representation language might enable us to capture knowledge of billions of biological systems in manner that is meaningful to human designers? How might we use the collective intelligence of tens, or hundreds, of thousands of biologists across the world to construct a knowledge base of biological designs? How might we automatically abstract useful design patterns and principles from the billions of biological designs? How might we automatically access the right set of designs and design patterns at the right time in the design process? How might we support human designers in transferring biological knowledge to their problems in technology design and thus enhance the creativity of their designs? How might we help human designers in using biological knowledge to identify novel design opportunities?

The products of the workshop will include a report to the NSF in the short term, and an edited volume tentatively entitled Bioinspired Design: Computational Methods and Tools in the medium term. But the most important long-term product of the workshop is a new research community focused on developing design methods and computational tools for bioinspired design. We plan to hold a second workshop on the same topic in August 2011 in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the 2011 ASME IDETC Conference.

Bioinspired Design:  Method in the Beautiful Madness?