Technologies of adaptation, such as distributed intelligence,
flex-time accounting, niche economics, and supervised evolution, all
stir up the organic in machines. Wired together into one megaloop, the
world of the made slips steadily toward the world of the born.
As Tibbs studied what was needed to imitate "the world of the born" in
manufacturing, he became convinced that industrial activities would
become "sustainable," to use current jargon, as they become more
organic. Imagine, Tibbs suggests, that we push grimy workaday industrial
processes toward the character of biological processes. Instead of the
high-pressure and high-temperature needs of most factories, lay out a
factory operating within the everyday range of biological values.
"Biological metabolism is primarily fueled by solar energy and operates
at ambient temperatures and pressures," Tibbs writes in his landmark
1991 monograph Industrial Ecology. "If this were true of industrial
metabolism, there could be significant gains in plant operating safety."
Hot is fast, furious, and efficient. Cool is slow, safe, and flexible.
Life is cool. Pharmaceutical companies are undergoing a revolution as
bioengineered yeast cells replace toxic, solvent-intense chemicals to
create medicinal drugs. While the pharmaceutical factory's hi-tech
plumbing remains, genes spliced into a living yeasty soup take over as
the engine. The use of bacteria to extract mineral ores from spent mine
tailings -- a job that in the industrial past required harsh and
environmentally destructive methods -- is another proven biological -- scale
process replacing a mechanical one.
Although life is built upon carbon, it is not powered by it. But carbon
has fueled industrial development, as well as its accompanying
atmospheric shock. CO2 and other pollutants burn off into the air in
direct proportion to the presence of complex hydrocarbons in fuel. The
more carbon, the more mess. Yet the real energy gain in fuels does not
come from burning the carbon component of hydrocarbons, but the hydrogen
The best fuel of the ancients was wood. Expressed as the proportion of
carbon to hydrogen, fuelwood is roughly 91 percent carbon. During the
peak of the industrial revolution, the preferred fuel was coal, which is
50 percent carbon. Oil for the modern factory is 33 percent carbon,
while natural gas, the upcoming favorite clean fuel is 20 percent
carbon. Tibbs notes that, "As the industrial system has evolved [fuels]
have become increasingly hydrogen-rich. In theory at least, pure
hydrogen would be the ideal 'clean fuel.'"
A future "hydrogen economy" would use sunlight to crack water into
hydrogen and oxygen, and then pump the hydrogen around like natural gas,
burning it for energy where needed. Such an environmentally benign
carbonless energy system would ape the photon-based powerpacks in plant
By pushing industrial processes toward the organic model, bionic
engineers create a spectrum of ecosystem types. At one extreme are pure,
natural ecosystems like an alpine meadow or a mangrove swamp. These
systems can selfishly be thought to produce biomass, oxygen, foodstuffs,
and thousands of fancy organic chemicals, a few of which we harvest. At
the other extreme are pure, raw industrial systems, which synthesize
compounds not found in nature, or not found in such large volumes. In
between are a spectrum of hybrid ecosystems such as marshland sewage
treatment plants (which use microbes to digest waste) or wineries (which
use living yeast to make vintage brews), and soon, bioengineered
processes that will use gene-spliced organisms to produce silk or
vitamins or glues.
Both genetic engineering and industrial ecology promise the third
category of bionic systems -- part biology, part machine. We have only
begun to imagine the varieties of ecotech systems that could create the
things we desire.
Industry will inevitably adopt biological ways because:
It takes less material to do the same job better. Cars, planes,
houses, and, of course, computers, now consume less material than two
decades ago, and give far better performance. Most of the processes that
will generate our wealth in the future will shrink to biological scale
and resolution, even when these processes make products as large as
redwood trees. Manufacturers will perceive natural biological processes
as competitive and inspirational, and this will drive manufactured
processes toward biological-type solutions.
The complexity of built things now reaches biological complexity.
Nature, the master manager of complexity, offers priceless guidance in
handling messy, counterintuitive webs. Artificial complex systems will
be deliberately infused with organic principles simply to keep them
Nature will not move, so it must be accommodated. Nature -- which is
larger than us and our contraptions -- sets the underlying pace for
industrial progress, so the artificial will have to conform to the
natural in the long term.
The natural world itself -- genes and life forms -- can be engineered (and
patented) just like industrial systems. This trend narrows the gap
between the two spheres of natural and artificial/industrial ecosystems,
making it easier for industry to finance and appreciate the
Anyone can see that our world is steadily paving itself over with
human-made gadgets. Yet for every rapid step our society takes toward
the manufactured, it is taking an equally quick step toward the
biological. While electronic gizmos dazzle, they are here primarily to
ferment the real revolution...in biology. The next century ushers in an
era not of silicon -- as everyone trumpets -- but of biology: Mice. Viruses.
Genes. Ecology. Evolution. Life.
Sort of. What the next century will really usher in is hyperbiology:
Synthetic Mice. Computer Viruses. Engineered Genes. Industrial Ecology.
Supervised Evolution. Artificial Life. (But they all are of one.)
Silicon research is stampeding toward biology. Teams are in hot
competition to design computers that not only assist the study of
nature, but are natural themselves.
Note the woolly flavor of these recent technical conferences and
workshops: Adaptive Computation (Santa Fe, April 1992), modeling organic
flexibility into computer programs; Biocomputation (Monterey, June
1992), claiming that "natural evolution is a computational process of
adaptation to an ever changing environment"; Parallel Problem Solving
from Nature (Brussels, September 1992), treating nature as a
supercomputer; The Fifth International Conference on Genetic Algorithms
(San Diego, 1992), mimicking DNA's power of evolution; and uncountable
conferences on neural networks, which focus on copying the distinctive
structure of the brain's neurons as a model for learning.
Ten years from now the wowiest products in your living room, office, or
garage will be based on ideas from these pioneering meetings.
Here in one paragraph is a pop-history of the world: The African savanna
hatches human hunter-gatherers -- raw biology; the hunter-gatherers hatch
agriculture-domestication of the natural; the farmers hatch the
industrial-domestication of the machine; the industrialists hatch the
currently emerging postindustrial whatever. We are still figuring out
what it is, but I'll call it the marriage of the born and the made.
To be precise, the flavor of the next epoch is neo-biological rather
than bionic, because, although it may start symmetrically, biology
always wins in any blending of organic and machine.
Biology always wins because the organic is not a sacred stance. It is
not a holy status that living entities inherit by some mystical means.
Biology is an inevitability -- almost a mathematical certainty -- that all
complexity will drift towards. It is an omega point. In the slow
mingling of the made and born, the organic is a dominant trait, while
the mechanic is recessive. In the end, bio-logic always wins.