“Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.”
— Peter Thiel, Zero to One
Thiel is saying that Microsoft, Google and Facebook all made something new. They went from nothing to something, from zero to one.
Now that we have an index of the internet, operating systems and social networks, that moment has passed. The next phase of innovations will not come from building on top of what they have built.
It will come from building something new.
Innovation comes from questioning the conventional wisdom of “how things are done”. Contrarian thinking leads to world-changing startups.
There’s a new wave of startups who are going against one of the most pervasive assumptions of our time: that we should look to technology for solutions to our most pressing issues.
These are the startups based on biomimicry. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that looks for solutions to human challenges in nature’s vast library of strategies and patterns.
Biomimicry startups are asking nature how to design smart AI, build sustainable houses and, ultimately, address the most pressing issues of our time.
Bird-Brained Artificial Intelligence
Unanimous AI is a biomimicry startup you might have heard of.
It’s known for successfully predicting the last 3 years of Oscar winners, Time’s Person of the Year and Donald Trump’s 100-day approval rating (which it got down to the exact point).
But Unanimous is not your normal deep-learning AI. It’s “swarm AI”, based on how birds, fish and bees make decisions together in a swarm.
Taken individually, these creatures aren’t renowned for their brainpower. But when they come together in flocks, schools and swarms, a collective intelligence emerges that is greater than just the sum of its (not particularly intelligent) parts.
As company founder Louis Rosenberg explains:
“Nature has spent millions of years trying to optimize how living things operate together, because they can solve very complicated problems together, and ultimately are able to survive by thinking as a system.”
In a swarm, survival depends on deciding where to go to find food or avoid predators. But swarms have no single leader to make a final decision and no language for discussion. Nature’s solution is to pool the knowledge and intuition of the swarm as a whole.
As individuals start to move, they exert a pull on the direction the group will take. Some individuals will agree, and pull in the same direction. Others will have different knowledge of the situation or a different gut feeling. They’ll tug in a different direction. As these pulls and tugs play out in real-time, a decision emerges that optimizes the inputs of every participant and the swarm moves in the best direction.
Unanimous’ Swarm AI works in the same way. A group of individuals is asked a question. They then interact in real-time to exert a pull towards what they think is the best answer. Together, the swarm makes a decision.
You can see this process applied to the question of Democratic Party policy during the 2016 election.
Unanimous AI vs Deep Learning AI vs Humans
Unanimous’ Swarm AI has already been tested against deep-learning AI and human experts in the diagnosis of pneumonia.
In a paper published in Nature, Unanimous AI unsurprisingly outperformed individual radiologists. It also outperformed groups of radiologists debating and voting on diagnoses.
When pitted against CheXNet, a deep-learning AI trained to diagnose pneumonia, the results are a little murkier.
When facing off against CheXNet, Unanimous AI made better diagnoses. But when CheXNet was retrained with a bigger and better dataset, it started to outperform Unanimous in some areas.
The researchers concluded that deep-learning AI was great where it had high degrees of certainty. For less certain cases, a group of radiologists assisted by Unanimous AI produced the best diagnoses possible.
Unanimous keeps humans relevant in the age of AI
That’s where the significance of Unanimous AI really comes to the fore. The development of artificial intelligence is often framed as a competition between humans and the algorithms we program. When the algorithms get better than us at any given task, we become irrelevant.
Unanimous AI goes against the assumption that deep-learning AI is going to be smarter than a group of human intelligence. Looking to nature’s swarms provided the inspiration to challenge that assumption.
Biomimicry has led Unanimous to reassert the importance of people in the age of artificial intelligence. In doing so, they are copying nature to address one of the most pressing issues of our time.
More than just eloquent engineering
“Positively shaping the development of artificial intelligence” is one of the most urgent issues we face as a species, according to 80,000 Hours, the non-profit that identifies mankind’s most pressing problems and figures out how best you can work to solve them.
Unsurprisingly, climate change is also on that list. We urgently need to answer the question of how we sustain our society while staying within the ecological limits of the Earth.
It might be tempting to break this challenge down into a series of individual engineering problems, like how we produce energy without emissions, or chemicals without fossil fuels.
But the most innovative new biomimicry startups are not just copying nature to solve engineering problems. They’re copying nature’s systems to address mankind’s systemic problems.
One example is UK based startup Biohm. Biohm’s product has its roots in nature — literally. They grow sustainable construction materials out of mycelium, the tendrilous, root-like part of mushrooms.
Like Unanimous AI, Biohm’s product is based on nature. And just like Unanimous AI, Biohm’s innovations have implications far beyond solving an engineering or design problem.
To make construction more sustainable, they are mimicking nature on a systematic level to address an underlying assumption of our society: waste.
Nature knows how to do business sustainably
We might be shocked by the scale of our waste mountains. But even if we recycle, we generally accept the concept of waste. How many times have you told yourself that “some things you just can’t recycle”?
Waste, it would seem, is simply the end of the line. We extract raw materials, we turn them into something new, we use them and then we throw them away when we’re done. The garbage heap is the place where a lot of our products naturally end up.
Nature has a different modus operandi. In natural systems, nothing is wasted. When a tree reaches the end of its life, for example, it dies and falls over. But it’s not wasted. Fungus and microbes break it down into humus, the nutrient rich soil where the next generation of trees lay their roots. New growth takes up valuable organic compounds from their decayed forest forebears.
You’ve heard of this before. It’s the circle of life. When the same logic is applied to the waste, it’s called the circular economy. In the circular economy, when products reach the end of their useful lives, someone steps in to turn them into something new.
But there’s more to the circular economy than just eliminating waste. It’s a different way of thinking that is offering biomimicry startups a systematically different way to do business.
As Biohm founder Ehab Sayed explains in Biohm’s Google Talk:
The circular economy is not simply about recycling resources, but it’s about adding as much value as possible at every stage of the way so that the resource that you’re using is not depleting in value at all, it’s either maintaining the same value or increasing in value.
The approach of adding value at every stage has led Biohm to conceive of their products a little differently. Instead of offering materials that can only be used once (like concrete), Biohm’s can be taken apart and reassembled. They also offer ongoing servicing of their buildings and end-of-life deconstruction.
Biohm is also growing new strains of fungus that can eat up waste plastic to grow construction materials and even food.
12.7 million tons of plastic waste was entering the oceans in 2015, and researchers expect this to rise “by an order of magnitude” before 2025. Given the scale of plastic pollution, it’s critical that we find a way to overturn our assumptions that “waste” plastic need only be disposed of. Nature is showing us both the solution, both on the systematic level and the engineering level.
Biohm represents a very different way to think about the construction industry. Overall, it’s a more environmentally sustainable business model. It doesn’t rely on extraction, processing and disposal, but on recycling, recreating and reusing.
The results are impressive: a truly sustainable company that can insulate an ice cream from a thousand degrees of heat by using mushrooms.
Asking Nature for innovation
For both Anonymous AI and Biohm, the implications of biomimicry go far beyond just the product they are making.
Biomimicry is starting to show its potential to address the most pressing issues of our time on a systematic level. Startups are already making headway, and there’s more where that came from.
There is now a growing library of nature-inspired solutions to all kinds of problems. It’s called AskNature. Many of the solutions documented in this library relate to what 80,000 Hours identify as the most pressing questions for our survival and prosperity as a species.
Beyond positively shaping the development of AI and the extreme risks of climate change, 80,000 Hours also considers “reducing global catastrophic biological risks” and “improving institutional decision making” to be priorities.
Nature’s ready-made solutions leap off the page for their potential.
Will the bacteria that constantly evolve to defeat new fungal invaders help protect us from ever more powerful biological risks? And if not, then what of the 85 research-backed solutions already in the library under the category of “Protect from living threats > Microbes”?
If “improving institutional decision making” is one of the most impactful areas you can work on, what is the potential of any of the 214 ways the natural world has found to cooperate, coordinate and provide for one and other?
There are many barriers between an idea and a successful startup. Innovation carries a high risk of failure. But for the most crucial challenges of our time we will need to overturn assumptions and innovate.
Nature is ready to show us the way. We just need to ask.