Do Androids Dream of Electric Bumblebees?

There is a saying in NASA that says “it is impossible for bumblebees to fly. The problem is that they do not know it”. We often use reason based on incomplete assumptions. This article is a small tribute to Philip K. Dick’s book, “Androids dream of eletric lambs?”, which inspired the film Blade Runner to Ritley Scott.

The book and the film show a world in which technology and bioengineering can make a perfect copy of a being inspired by nature, and even make an improved version. In the movie, J. F. Sebastian is the engineer who, as kind of modern Prometheus, based on nature, creates the Nexus VI.

In real life, the role of the engineer is not yet to play at being a god, although his role is essential in the modern world, since it acts as a bridge between knowledge and the solution applied to concrete problemas. The methodology to do this is diverse: physics (mechanical or electronic), with sophisticated simulations, allows defining what will be the solution. But to get to this point often you have to use a precise observation of natural processes, which become a source of inspiration to get plausible responses.

There are well-known examples of this dynamic, such as Velcro, inspired by seeds of the burdock; also the duck-shaped form of high-speed trains, or networks of neurons as the basis for artificial intelligence. All of them are forms inspired by a solution that has been successful in nature.

In spite of everything, it is a temptation to think that with our transforming capacity, the supposed “superiority” of man in front of nature, we could, form this point of view, save ourselves from observing it.

The bumblebee of NASA

There is a saying in NASA, as a warning to engineers, that “it is aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly. The problem is that he does not know it. “Far from the fact that physics is wrong, the problem lies in the fact that we use reason based in incomplete assumptions.

The human mind, like any system inside or outside of nature, has its limitations and biased looks.  In some way, the mind imposes a specific type of design that does not have to be what nature would find.

An example is the design of the antenna of the spacecraft ST5. From Darwin we know that evolution moves the change of species. Natural selection and mutation are the engines of an optimization process in an area of complexity. NASA; faced with the challenge of designing an antenna capable of operating in space with a series of limitations, applied the laws of evolution to find an optimal solution. The result surprised everyone: the design looked more like a wrinkled cable, but is was clearly more optimal than the one devised by humans, who ignored the wisdom of nature.

When we see it, we understand that the human being could hardly have imagined the contraption as it was designed, inspired only by its usual sources; simply our algorithm of thought does not work like that of nature, a premise that we should never forget.

Francisco de Goya said that "the abandoned fantasy of reason produces impossible monsters: united with it, it is the mother of the arts and the origin of wonders". In the time of Goya evil was superstition, and reason, the solution. Nowadays, when we have cornered superstition in many areas, we can fall into the idea that reason is the source of invention itself. Unfortunately, that's still the case. Without other sources we can come to think that the bumblebee could not fly. That's why engineers maybe should never stop dreaming about electric bumblebees.

Carlos Rodríguez Caso

Institut de Ciències Biomimètiques

Read more here