Understanding evolution can lead to better technology. But did you know that understanding technology can better elucidate evolution? …that technology itself is evolving over time to discover truths about our biology?
Recently I was invited to serve as technology editor at This View of Life, and it triggered a bit of soul-searching. My first reaction, you see, was to ask myself how I ended up on anyone’s radar for ‘technology’. I’m more the gee-whiz, abstruse, philosophical, theoretical type, and the research I’ve romped through over the years doesn’t exactly read like a list of useful ideas. In fact, at some point in my early academic development I got the unfortunate impression that “useful” was a bad word. So, how did my name come to mind for “tech”? The answer has to do with my unusual gambit within academia. Rather than begging for grant money for the rest of my life — a task that is especially unfit for my sort of modus operandi – I decided to start an independent lab (2ai Labs) with a long-time colleague (Dr. Tim Barber), and fund our basic, usually-useless, research via useful intellectual property spin-offs from our research (the first being O2Amp). My name came up for “tech”, then, presumably because I’m now an owner of a tech start-up, one related to one of my fundamental-science, evolutionary, research directions. Deeper soul-searching came next: I identify myself as a scientist, not a technologist or businessman. Has my alternative academic route ended up irrevocably changing who I am or what I’m known for? More navel gazing followed. But something useful came out of it: As I pondered technology and evolution, and my role within them, it occurred to me that the relationship between the two is much richer than many us often appreciate.
What usually comes to mind when one thinks of evolution and technology is biologically-inspired technology, or biomimicry. Sometimes our technology mimics biology’s brilliant mechanisms, like Velcro and burrs, or Speedo and shark scales. And sometimes technology mimics the surprising functions biology carries out (in what I call the “teleome”) but we use mechanisms of our own, like my O2Amp glasses and the oxygenation-sensing function of primate color vision. In these biomimicry cases the arrow goes from bio to tech – natural selection’s smart designs are used to give us a leg up on building cool technology.
But there’s so much more!
The arrow isn’t just from evolution to technology, but also the other way around. Technology’s smart designs can tell us about principles of biology. I don’t merely mean that our developing knowledge of tech-motivated math and engineering can help us in the biological sciences. No, I mean something much stronger: Technology has culturally evolved over time to possess a wealth of discoveries about the biological principles governing us, and so it’s possible to engage in something one might call “tech-inspired biology.”
I first came upon “tech-inspired biology” when I noticed there was a missing field in vision. If you’re interested in cognition you can study it in two broad ways. On the one hand you can study it in the lab – that would be cognitive psychology. But you can also study cognition by looking at the linguistic utterances people make – that would be cognitive linguistics. For visual perception we have an obvious “lab” analog – visual psychophysics. But, I wondered, where’s the visual analog to cognitive linguistics? Where is the field of vision where one looks at the visual utterances people make, and uses patterns in these visual utterances to help us better understand principles of vision? Where is the missing field of “visual linguistics”?
What, though, could “visual utterances” even mean? After some thought it became obvious. Our cultural landscape is teeming with visual signs and designs, from the arts to everyday design to architecture to fashion. It’s all around us, and many of these visual utterances have undergone cultural selection to be good, or interesting, or sexy, or something, to the eyes of people. If we can understand what these visual utterances have culturally evolved to do to our visual systems, we can better understand our visual system and brain.
The obvious place to begin, I figured, was to look at perhaps the simplest sort of visual utterance we make, and yet one of the most significant: writing. What sorts of regularities exist across the hundreds of writing systems that have existed? And, if one can find regularities – “visual grammars” – what does it tell us about the principles of vision? My first foray in this direction found strong regularities in the complexity and redundancy of human writing systems, placing nontrivial constraints on the visual system, and another similarly-inspired research direction allowed explanations for why the visual system has as many hierarchical levels as it does. (And a similar-style research direction showed how one can use the structure of the dictionary to make non-trivial inferences about the hierarchical organization of our lexicon, and how words get their meanings.)
Writing is a technology (one that’s been designed without a designer) that has discovered stuff about our minds. And my research directions I just mentioned above were mere wee dips into what may be a vast library of implicit “knowledge” about the visual system. If you study writing systems or any visual utterances in this light, with the brain or biology or their evolution as your target, then you’re doing one variety of tech-inspired biology.
That’s how I got into tech-inspired biology, and it helps begin to communicate what I mean by it.
Note that there is a key assumption needed in order for tech-inspired biology to be sensible. Tech-inspired biology is an available strategy for understanding human biological principles only because humans, like all animals, have a nature. If we humans were infinitely plastic, blank-slate, machines as we’re often caricatured to be, then this tech-inspired strategy for understanding our biology wouldn’t work. If we were infinitely plastic, then a “build it and they will come” motto would suffice: build whatever technology you want, and we humans will adapt ourselves to fit it. But not any old technology will work well on us. Bar codes are for check-out scanners, not eyeballs. The more the tech bends to fit our innate “shape”, the more magnificently it will work.
For example, I showed in my research and earlier book, The Vision Revolution, that letter shapes across writing systems have the contour-conglomeration types found in natural scenes among opaque objects. We’re fantastic readers only because cultural evolution has shaped writing to look like natural scenes, thereby transforming our visual object-recognition system into a reading machine, something the visual brain never evolved to do.
And I provided a case in my book, Harnessed, that even spoken language has the signature features of a technology that has culturally evolved to fit a naturally-selected competency: speech across humankind has the fundamental patterns found in the sounds of the events among the main furniture of our terrestrial world, solid-object events. Our auditory object-event-recognition system thereby gets transformed into a speech-recognition system. No natural selection needed, because cultural evolution did all the work creating a speech technology that “nature-harnesses” us. (In this light, notice that studying linguistic utterances for the purposes of understanding cognition is tech-inspired biology, whereas it wouldn’t be categorized as such if language – as it often is supposed and as I argue against in Harnessed – is treated as part of our biological heritage.)
Finally, the arts probably abound with nature-harnessing, whether it’s the use of colors that tap into their emotion-laden skin-color-signaling meanings, or possess visual cues to motion as in optic streaks of comic strips as I discuss in Vision Revolution. I make a book-length case in Harnessed that music is a technology that has culturally evolved over time to have the fundamental signature sounds of a person moving evocatively in our presence, thereby harnessing our human-behavior-recognition system for a newfangled auditory-cheesecakey entertainment system.
These core human capabilities such as writing, speech and the arts appear to bend themselves to us. …to shape themselves so as to – as Stanislas Dehaene says – to “neuronally recycle” innate brain competencies. And the most clever of cultural evolution’s tricks is, I’ve argued, to mimic nature in the right respect for the job. That’s why writing, speech, and music work so astonishingly well. So well that they appear to be instincts.
These nature-harnessing examples help emphasize the close fit between our brain and the technologies cultural evolution has given and goes on giving us (including my recent attempt to harness the visual system for computation), smothering us in evolved artifacts that amount to a mold, preserving the shape of who we are, outside and in.
I hope you see, then, that the relationship between technology and evolution consists of much more than just biomimicry. Technologies evolve to fit our natures, and this is why “tech-inspired biology” is a sensible enterprise. It’s not only sensible, but can give us insights into the functioning of the entire brain in complex scenarios, insights we would never get in the lab.
Tech-inspired biology ought to be a discipline.
I’ve dwelled here in this inaugural piece on tech-inspired biology, but that’s just because it happened to be on my mind today. For this section of TVOL, any evo-tech-ish fare will be fair game.