Biomimetics, the discipline devoted to the bio-inspired engineering of things and processes, could potentially hold the keys to solving Bitcoin’s scaling problem. Until now, biomimetics has mostly been employed for tweaking nuts and bolts physical things, such as designing a swimming suit modeled after shark skin.
Now it is time to turn to biomimetics for optimizing informational processes. Ever since the discovery of DNA, science knows that life arises from the storage and expression of genetic code. Biology is information and information is biology. In order to solve Bitcoin’s congestion issues, the network is in need of a biomimetic overhaul.
In the Blockchain space, the term “ecosystem” is one of those ubiquitous buzzwords that pops up in numerous news articles, press releases and on the front page of almost every start-up. As everybody knows, it can be a tough job to explain the novel characteristics of Blockchain technology to those that have never heard of it before. The word “ecosystem” comes in handy as a metaphor for illustrating how Blockchain promises to simplify complex interrelations in finance and business for the better.
Studies in neuroscience have pointed out that thinking operates in images, not in words. The advertising industry knows about this. Is the designation “ecosystem” just a clever marketing term cooked up by a PR strategist? Or does the term have a deeper truth to it? “Ecosystem,” it seems, is more than a catchphrase. The word speaks to our intuition and helps us to wrap our mind around a new paradigm.
Ecosystem and economy
Let’s suppose “ecosystem” is more than just a metaphor. Maybe Blockchain is really going to transform the economic sphere into something that resembles an ecosystem as defined by biology. But what are the crucial features of an ecosystem in the original, i.e. biological, sense?
The term originated in the early 1930s when Oxford botanist A.R. Clapham was asked by a colleague to come up with a word for the entirety of all physical and biological relations within a given environment. The answer given by A.R. Clapham, “ecosystem,” seemed good enough to his colleague, A.G. Tansley, who would go on to write a seminal paper in 1935 that introduced the term to a wider audience.
“Ecosystem” has the same linguistic root as “economy.” Both words derive from “Oikos,” the ancient Greek word for “household.” A curious coincidence, to say the least. A comparison between the most basic terminology of economy and ecology reveals more stunning parallels. In both domains, there are “producers” and “consumers,” “resources,” “regulation,” “organizations” and “organisms.”
According to complexity science, man-made and biological systems, at the most fundamental level, are governed by the same principles, namely emergent behavior and self-organization, and adaptation and evolution. It seems that the vocabularies of ecology and economy carry such striking similarities because of an underlying shared operating principle. Both ecology and economy converge on one common ground: self-regulation through feedback loops.
The power of feedback
In economy, the concept of the “self-regulating market” goes back as far as economist Adam Smith in the 18th century. Self-regulation, a property the father of capitalism attributed to markets, is also a characteristic feature of biological systems. Feedback mechanisms lie at the heart of self-regulation. One obvious example that is relevant to human health is the regulation of the blood sugar level. Put simply, if blood sugar runs too high or too low, the organism restores the desired state through cellular signals that flare up in order to initiate rebalancing cascades.
In a similar manner, markets will react to shifting levels of supply and demand. Escalating prices will push down spikes in demand while sinking prices stimulate interest in the commodity again. It is a never ending struggle for a balanced state. Just as bodies heal, economies may be disrupted by external shocks and recover. Or they don’t.
Having identified crucial links between man-made economic systems and naturally evolved ecosystems, biomimetics becomes a viable path for solving pressing technological issues in the digital crypto-economy. Biomimetics, in essence, is the science of translating problem solutions from nature into the realm of technology.
For example, in an experiment the growth pattern of the fungus-like slime mold Physarum polycephalum closely resembled the outline of the Tokyo railway system, mimicking the actual real-world network structure. Nature chooses the same routes as city planners do. The researchers then coded the slime mold’s behavior into an algorithm in order to solve a “traveling salesman” optimization problem in logistics.
In the history of the Internet, there is precedence for a biomimetic approach bringing about a major technological breakthrough. Doing research for the US military in the early 60’s, Paul Baran was working on the design of a resilient communication network for WWIII scenarios that would continue to work even in the event of enemy forces disrupting most of the nodes.
At that time, military communication rested on analog circuits resembling telephone lines that were always on. Baran introduced the concept of packet switching, transforming the old point-to-point communication pathways into an intertwined network of highways for the travel of discontinuous information packages. These were capable of finding new routes to their destination as nodes were turned on and off.
Quite literally, this set-up resembled a mouse running through a maze, turning its back on dead-ends and probing for other ways out of the labyrinth. Baran’s solution was inspired by “Theseus,” a machine built by information technology pioneer Claude Shannon that is considered to be the first machine-learning device in the world. Shannon had a built mechanical mouse controlled by electromagnetic circuitry that could find its way out of a labyrinth, effectively memorizing the correct path.
When the mouse was positioned at a past location of its journey, it would swiftly head off into the right direction again. Shannon’s mechanical mouse mirrored the instinctive behavior of an animal faced with a particular problem. Packet switching then mirrored the behavior of the mechanical mouse. It seems, the internet really houses a “ghost in the machine.”
Bitcoin is at a critical stage of technological evolution right now. The slowed-down processing and the rising fees of transactions put the entire architecture into question. In the following posts, we want to outline a solution to the problem based upon a biomimetic understanding of cryptocurrency.
All single-celled and multicellular organisms consume ATP, an organic energy storage unit. Biologists refer to ATP as the “energy currency of the cell” because an almost endless multitude of biochemical reactions is activated by one and the same energy-supplying substance. ATP unlocks all kinds of processes just as money will allow you to buy almost anything.
Stay tuned for more on decentralized information processing in the brain, the curious parallels of currency exchange rates and the graphs produced by neuroimaging techniques, and the shadowy “super-entity” that seems to have infiltrated the global monetary system similar to a retroactive virus hijacking a cell.
- by Claudio Flores, Danilo Flores.
Claudio Flores, M. Sc., and Danilo Flores are the founders of Kybernesia, a lab for thought experiments and biomimetics based in Hamburg, Germany. They adopt a non-reductionist approach towards technology and nature, taking inspiration from the writings of Schopenhauer, Russian philosophy, linguistics, complexity science, tradition, ambient music, cognitive neuroscience, legal history and geopolitics.