Speeding up the evolutionary process could have unexpected results
Model aeroplanes, birds and Bionik – Professor Ingo Rechenberg of the Technical University Berlin maps out the importance of biology in today's science and especially the future.
At the age of 20 years you were world champion and runner-up of model aeroplane flying. What fascinated you?
Model aeroplane flying was my first close contact with real science. We approached our hobby very scientifically (this infuriated some of our colleagues who didn't want to miss out on the little man sitting in the replica cockpit). I designed my high-performance models after the flight of birds (Vogelflug).
Are you still building models?
Yes, as fate would have it, 50 years later, what was referred to as playful past-time, has become generally accepted. My institute and I are currently involved in an international competition to build the smallest flying man-made dragon-fly. Our smallest Micro Air Vehicle is 10 cm long and freely maneuverable in four degrees of freedom. Sometimes I am lending a hand with the construction of MAV as I have much experience from my youth.
Your models were inspired by the flight of birds. Wherein lies the main difference to ordinary aeroplanes?
My Micro Air Vehicles are strictly based on the ideal of a bird or an insect. Sometimes this is not obvious. It's all about laws of flow (Strömungsgesetze). They only correspond with biological role models and the MAVs. The flow physics (Strömungsphysik) of an aeroplane wing of an airliner adhere to completely different rules as the flow physics of an insect wing.
Did you actually study birds yourself or rely on existing material?
I studied birds very closely. During my two stays in the Antarctic on the small island of Ardley, South Shetland Islands, I made more than 3000 flight pictures of the Skua, a bird of prey similar to the sea-gull, to show the intricate construction of the highly flexible deck feathers, which make this bird literally immun to stall (Abreissen der Strömung). We could verify the feature of these deck feathers working as seperation brakes (Ablösebreme) in the wind channel of our institute.
How important are technological innovations like high-speed cameras for motion-capturing or high-resolution microscopes for your work?
Unfortunately I don't own a handy little high-speed camera, which I could take along on my Sahara excursions. A high-resolution microscope is extremely important for my work, i.e. decoding the phenomenon of the minuscule friction and the high abrasion strength (Abrasionsfestigkeit) of the sandfish (Scincus scincus) in the Sahara. The sandfish is a lizard, that swims like a fish in the sand of the dunes. After a short period of time it should look matt and worn, but it always stays very shiny. The reason was brought to light by the scanning electron microscope: The scales of the sandfish have finest micro-bumps (Mikroschwellen) which brush off minuscule clay particles before they function as emery between a grain of sand and the surface of the scale. The scanning electron microscope revealed that all grains of sand – even the ones in Berlin – are covered with a dense coat of finest clay and other hard micro particles.
Bionik to me is actually an expression of great respect towards nature. How do you feel about genetic engineering and the alteration of genetic codes?
I don't share the fear, that genetic engineering could create a world-conquering super-monster. The only thing genetic engineering is capable of so far, is mere substitution technology (Austauschtechnik). It is as if an engineer could exchange optimized construction-parts of one car brand with the parts of another car make. Something truely original isn't going to come out of it. Only evolution is capable to do such a thing. The uninhibited proliferating super-bacillus will hardly be the result of exchanging and recombining existing biological features. As he wont be used to the rough outside-world, he will die without a trace. A completely different thing would be if we could speed up the evolutionary process respecting rules like the evolutionary strategy (Evolutionsstrategie). In this case unexpected things could happen.
The title of your speech is «The Future Becomes More Biological. A Bionik World in the Year 2099». What can we expect to hear?
I want to map out a technical future, that is free of illusions, which oppose laws of physics. Looking at biology one sees best, what is feasible. The technical-chemical reconstruction of one-molecule-sensors, that are common among insects and some vertebrates, could help detect explosives in minuscule concentrations. Its source could be uncovered by Micro Air Vehicles, which would operate in swarms and form themselves to smart antennas. They could also help find victims of avalanches because even snowed under they emmit magneto-electric waves through their neural activity. Then there is the dream of the waste disposal industry: All objects are made out the same simple molecular basic material – like in biology. The individual characteristics of the materials are the result of different combinations of the base-molecules.
Ingo Rechenberg was born in Berlin on November 20, 1934. He studied aeroplane engineering at the Technical University Berlin and at the University of Cambridge, GB. He worked as a trainee at the Focker aeroplane company in Amsterdam. Inspired by a lecture of Professor Johann-Gerhard Helmcke about evolution, Rechenberg dives into to this research field. Three years later, 1966, he founded the inofficial research group evolution technology at TU Berlin. In 1970 Rechenberg writes his thesis and in 1971 his habilitation. Since 1972 he holds a chair for Bionik and Evolution Technology at the TU Berlin. Honors and awards: 1995: Lifetime Achievement Award of the Evolutionary Programming Society, USA. 2002: Evolutionary Computation Pioneer Award of the IEEE Neural Networks Society, USA. 2003: Senior Fellow of the International Society for Genetic and Evolutionary Computation, USA. 2005: Visiting Fellow of the Shanghai Institute for Advanced Studies, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Prof. Ingo Rechenberg, Technische Universität Berlin, FG Bionik und Evolutionstechnik
Dinner Speech «The Future Becomes More Biological. A Bionik World in the Year 2099»,
Hotel Schweizerhof, Switzerland
November 20, 2007; 20.40 h