Inteligência artificial. Crédito: Franck V/Unsplash

How can nature-inspired technologies change the world?

Internet, social networks, artificial intelligence and even biomimicry: what can these technologies do to promote sustainable economic, social and environmental development?

Technology is part of human history even before the existence of homo sapiens as we know it. The first ever seen record of using elements of nature to improve the living conditions of our ancestors dates 3.3 million years ago. A primitive tool carved on stone with the aim of working like a knife was found in Kenya at least 3 million years before the first representatives of our species appeared.

Technology, by the way, does not belong exclusively to us, homo sapiens. Orangutans, bonobos, and gorillas have their own tools made with twigs and plants. Chimpanzees have even entered their own Stone Age, when this material starts to be used more intensively as input to a range of useful objects.

The difference is that we, Homo sapiens sapiens - human subspecies corresponding to modern man - are significantly more advanced in the development and application of new technologies. In the 20th and 21st century, in particular, advances have accelerated. We have traveled into space, identified the presence of liquid water on other planets, created vaccines, and performed life-prolonging medical procedures.

There were, however, some side effects: we failed to guarantee access to these incredible innovations to all, which increased inequality, and to enable increasingly comfortable lifestyles, we have exploited the planet's natural resources in an extreme and often unsustainable way.

Curiously, the solution to these problems may be in the same technology that, barely or well, has brought us here. Nowadays, technology is the revolutionary force behind major economic, social and environmental advances.

Computerization and its developments, in particular, provide this revolutionary force. Computers, once clumsy, complicated and distant, look less and less like machines and gain characteristics that mirror human behavior. Artificial intelligence (AI) and the mechanisms of machine learning, the vanguard of this computerization, seek to identify patterns of reasoning and human behavior to solve problems, many of them caused by man's own action.

And, in this scenario, there is a way to find economic, social and environmental solutions inspired by the reproduction, through new nature-inspired technologies: biomimicry. It is a tool that is being seen, by more and more institutions, as the key element in building a sustainable future in these three issues. Check out how biomimicry has been applied in this context.

Máquinas trabalham na fábrica KUKA Industrial Robots. Crédito: CC 3.30

AI: economic efficiency X job creation

The artificial intelligence (AI) industry is already a giant. According to a report by the International Data Corporation (IDC), worldwide revenues for cognitive and AI systems reached $12.5 billion in 2017, an increase of 59.3% over 2016. More broadly, businesses related to this type of technology will grow even more. A survey produced by consulting firm Gartner reports that these type of businesses increased 70% between 2017 and 2018, with the expectation of closing the year at US$ 1.2 trillion.

The future predicts even more growth for the industry. By 2022, this market is expected to reach $ 3.9 trillion - more than Brazil's gross domestic product, which closed 2017 at R$ 6.6 trillion. And companies already see this as a business opportunity: a Statista Consulting survey shows that 84% of enterprises believe investing in AI will lead to greater competitive advantages. 75% believe that AI will open up new businesses. 63% believe the pressure to reduce costs will require the use of AI.

At first, AI solutions increase efficiency in resource allocation and management of job vacancies and employment. But if, in the short term, exchanging human labor for machines is more economically efficient, what will the real impacts on the economy and society be in the medium and long term? A report by the McKinsey Global Institute states that, in the future, something between 75 million to 375 million may need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills by 2030.

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Get to know the jobs that AI and automation will create

"Artificial intelligence contribution to society’s transformation will be 3,000 times greater than the industrial revolution," says McKinsey’s study. The analysis is that about 60% of the economic activities performed today by people around the world might be automated by a third, at least.

It is still difficult to predict all the consequences of this revolution: there are optimistic and tragic estimates. According to Caio Calado, Chatbot advocate at technology company "Take" and editor of Bots Brazil, the outlook is positive. "Computers have been automating tasks, but it's not their job to replace people or steal jobs. Automation aims to end repetitive activities”, he explains. "It allows people to focus on creativity, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and other literally human problems," he says.

What’s a Chatbot all about?
Chatbot is a computer program, or software, designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet: chat (conversation) + bot (robot). Its technology is based on artificial intelligence or rules. Chatbot with AI can understand language and learn from interactions.

Chatbot. Crédito: PxHere

Using a Chatbot in the prevention and treatment of diseases is an example of its efficient application of AI for human life. In this regard, the most successful project is the Watson robot, developed by the American company IBM and trained based on 25 million published academic articles on cancer. A pilot program was conducted with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in Nova York, where Watson was tested on 1,000 cancer diagnoses made by human experts. In 99% of them, Watson recommended the same treatment as the oncologists. In 30% of the cases, Watson also found a treatment option the human doctors missed.

Improvements in general health service linked to efficiency in the business and production environment will have direct result in the numbers of a nation's economy. Accenture research reveals that AI could increase by 37% the economic growth rates of a country by 2035. Sweden, Finland, the USA and Japan would be ahead.

"It won’t be a trivial impact. On many occasions, its implementation will increase corporate profits and, in others, the application will be painful for today's business models," James Gautrey, investment adviser at Schroders, told the Spanish newspaper El País. According to a study, developed in Oxford, the risk lies on the worker because about 47% of total US employment can be replaced by machines.

The Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates that the negative impact of AI on jobs can range from US$ 14 trillion to US$ 33 trillion in 2025. Gartner, an advisory company, suggests the opposite: they say AI will create 2.3 million jobs in 2020, while eliminating 1.8 million.

"Technology does take jobs and those who do not update and follow the changes will face difficulties. That is not the goal," says Caio Calado. There is an unfair exchange of jobs: mechanical and operational positions are easily occupied by machines; but, in parallel, new activities emerge. The problem is that many workers do not keep pace with the transformations resulting from this technological revolution.

"AI is not meant to replace human labor, but to allow people to devote themselves to strategic functions," concludes Caio.

Robô interage com criança asiática. Crédito: Andy Kelly/Unsplash

Technology can be inclusive - or cause prejudices

The researcher and digital anthropologist Juliano Spyer lived in a community in the countryside of Bahia between April 2013 and July 2014. In his book, "Social Media in Emergent Brazil" (Mídias Sociais no Brasil emergente - UCL Press, 2017), he appoints the fictional name of Balduino to the community and reports a transformation in the behavior of local population due to social networks.

Balduino was facing economic growth and started receiving workers from smaller cities around. When living in their hometowns, newly arrived migrants had the habit of talking in public places about the lives of their colleagues, friends and family - that is, they gossiped. Such habit came to an end when they moved to Balduino, as they had no intimacy with their new neighbors and it was harder to find common places to share talks. That is, Balduino was transformed.

The anthropologist then discovered a new phenomenon. The gossip did not stop, but migrated from the public into the digital space - more specifically, Facebook. The world's most popular social network, with its 2.2 billion active users, has become a simulacrum of typical behavior of migrants from several distinct regions.

Grupo de robôs diversos. Crédito: Jehyun Sung/Unsplash

Technology that binds can also split

Technology, via the Internet, can be an element of integration and an environment that strengthens the cultural practices of a community. On the other hand, it can also become a means of exclusion. There is strong evidence of racial and gender biases in artificial intelligence systems - the most obvious case is an AI technology system for job vacancy that has 50% more chances of inviting an Euro-American descendent candidate than an Afro-American one, even if they have a strictly equal curriculum. Experts, such as Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath, agree that the problem is the lack of diversity in who develops the technology that spreads throughout the world.

"There is a concentration of programmers in Silicon Valley, and somehow this homogenizes the way we see the world on the whole planet," says José Luiz Goldfarb, a DSc and Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University in São Paulo (PUC-SP). "Nevertheless, communities can use the tools to reinforce their local way of behaving. After all, does technology eliminate or open space for other cultures?" he asks.

It’s not just economic contradiction between the pros and cons caused by the emergence of technologies, such as AI and social networks. It affects all the spectra of life in society. It interferes in mental health, in human relations, and even in the democratic system.

Caio Túlio Costa, first ombudsman of the Brazilian press and Professor of Ethics in postgraduate courses in journalism, believes the popularization of the internet and technology helps in the process of democratic inclusion. However, it requires attention.

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Read the full interview with Caio Túlio Costa

"The internet has given power to any citizen, any institution, any company. Paradoxically, at the same time that the monopoly of economic power in the media has come to an end, this market was even more concentrated with companies running a good race, such as Google and Facebook," he explains.

"Obviously, this works for both good and bad - and this good or bad will depend on which side anyone is on. Social networks act as megaphones for individual opinions, which once were restricted to the physical boundaries of each individual and the economic power needed to be part of the media," says the journalist and founding partner of Torabit, a digital monitoring platform.

The biggest concern is known as fake news. The easily shareable fake news may already have influenced elections around the world and have the strength to guide society’s behavior. The more popular, the better able to spread lies, manipulate public opinion and even define the results of an election.

Injustice is not a human privilege. Even AI systems are capable of promoting racial and gender biases. The most evident cases were registered in the United States. A report developed by AI used in a North American court was falsely flagging black defendants as likely future criminals at almost twice the rate as white defendants.

“Whoever programs these machines needs to be aware that their work will have a huge impact on humanity” - Caio Calado, Chatbot advocate at technology company Take and editor of Bots Brazil

Caio Calado knows there is a way to solve the problem: diversity. "There is no way to create an algorithm without its bias: it will always have a political and social position. So, to create intelligences with multiple roles and objectives, teams need to be more diverse," he explains.

"Humanity faces problems in society, in the economic system. Social networks and these technologies undress these psychosocial problems. If the algorithm is free to act, it can turn everything around," says Goldfarb.

 "Can AI do any harm? Technology is a resource, and it is getting faster and more scalable, since it is able to process information in ways that human brain will never be able to. But at the end of the day, the final decision is always the human’s - at least that's how it will be for the next few decades. And this is the most important issue: whoever programs these machines needs to be aware that their work will have a huge impact on humanity," says Calado.

Imagem ampliada de tecido biomimético. Crédito: Pascal Deynat/Odontobase/CC SA

Biomimicry: reproducing nature to save it

The idea behind the term biomimicry is old, but it was defined back in 1997 when the book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature"” (Ed. Cultrix, 1997) was published by American biologist Janine Benyus. For 20 years, Benyus' journey has taken her to spread the technique, inspired by nature and its processes, in order to create solutions and innovations in products, systems, strategies and policies.

The logic behind biomimicry is simple: we live on a planet that has worked well for over 4 billion years. If we have such a successful experience at our disposal, why not use it as a reference for solving our problems? Ultimately, why not imitate it? “If we understand that as we try to move from a linear, mechanical kind of metaphor to a living systems one — a circular one —, we actually have the chemistries and the best practices [of nature] at our fingertips,” Benyus said in an interview to Greenbiz website.

In her book, she describes a biomimicry world where industry and production would work by replicating the processes of animals and plants. As a result, we would have a fully biodegradable existence. The same logic would apply to food production, in self-fertilizing farms, and the production of medicines, which would be sustainably extracted from nature.

"Biomimicry is discovering what works in the natural world and, more importantly, what lasts. After 3.8 billion years of 'research and development' [there is now evidence that life on Earth existed 4.2 billion years ago], what has failed is in the fossils today. And we are surrounded by the secret of survival. The more the world looks like and works with this natural world, the more likely we are to be accepted into this home that is ours, but not just ours," Benyus says.

According to Giane Cauzzi Brocco, founder of the Biomimicry Brazil Network, it is still a long time before private initiatives introduce biomimicry into their processes, but the first cases demonstrate that the technique is environmentally correct and efficient.

"Companies are afraid of being radically disruptive and biomimicry is really innovative, even though it works with concepts from a long time ago. There isn’t much space in the market for that, but companies are opening up more. It is a transient moment and it encourages us for the future," says Brocco.

Biomimicry in practice

Here are some examples of successful use of biomimicry in the industry. Check out below.

1. Mycelium Styrofoam

Ecovative Design, an American packaging company, developed a mycelium biofabrication platform capable of replacing styrofoam with a microfilament structure formed by fungi. Ikea and Dell already use the product, which can be composted at home. Its cost competes with solutions that use styrofoam, and it also protects products with the same efficiency as rival material.

2. Shark skin swimsuit

The sporty Australian brand Speedo has developed a high-performance swimsuit inspired by the skin of a shark, which ensures swimmers more speed. The material boosted the professional swimmers' performance and it was banned by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) in 2010.

3. A commercial building modeled after termite mounds

The Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe, is a shopping mall that is also a commercial building and was designed by local architect Mick Pearce, inspired by the great African termite mounds. All its structure and design reproduce termite mounts and guarantee thermal comfort and lighting all year round without an air conditioning system installed, and spending 10% less energy for lighting - without losing in brightness.

Eastgate Centre, em Harare, Zimbabwe. Crédito: CC 3.0
Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe

4. The strength of the sun and the winds

Council House 2, in Melbourne, emulates natural processes of solar and wind energy production. A solar panel and a wind energy system are installed on the roof and, on each floor, the wind flow is tapped by the ventilation system. Its biomimicry devices allow the reduction of carbon emissions by 87%, electricity consumption by 82%, gas consumption by 87% and water consumption by 72%.

5. The beetle that helps fighting water shortage

Some biomimicry enthusiasts say that even the global water shortage could be solved with the technique. A beetle from Namibia would be the solution. The insect has a membrane capable of capturing and condensing the air moisture, transforming it into drinking water. Seoul National University of Science and Technology, in South Korea, developed the Dew Bank bottle from this process.

Under a hard shell, a layer of beetle's most sensitive skin shows structures similar to grooves or microscopic scaled pockets - they harvest the water in the air and seep it into the mouth of the insect. "Can you imagine the same application in arid regions, where there is no access to drinking water? It can really change the world. It's fantastic," says Giane.

What about you? In your opinion, which new technology will make the world better?