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Out of Control

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 portion.

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 cells.

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 going.

  • 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 biological.

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 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.