Early in 2013 when there was considerable debate about the government’s proposed National Curriculum Programme of Study for design & technology. Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, one of the UKs biggest companies, criticised the government’s proposal on the following grounds: The draft proposals for design & technology did “not meet the needs of a technologically literate society. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques, such as biomimicry (how we can emulate nature to solve human problems), we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in computer-aided design, we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control, we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.” The result of such authoritative criticism was a complete revision of the proposed programme of study such that it included the following statement under the teaching of design: To use a variety of approaches, such as biomimicry and user-centred design, to generate creative ideas and avoid stereotypical responses. Although biomimicry was a non-statutory example of a design strategy it was mentioned by name.
The Design and Technology Association ran inset sessions to help teachers understand what was for many a new idea. And many teachers have since taught pupils at both KS3 and KS4 about biomimicry, particularly how designers have used it as a creative product design tool. At its most basic the development of webbed gloves and flippers to aid swimming (biomimicking a frog) and more sophisticated the use of corrugated card for a cycle helmet based on the bone structure in a woodpecker’s skull. And of course it’s possible to view the circular economy as a systems approach based on biomimicry that can be used to move the world away from a destructive linear economy.
Underlying this appears to be the idea of biomimicry as a benign design tool; one that can only be used for good with few if any harmful consequences. But this view misrepresents nature and the constant struggle between and within species for survival. This was made very apparent to me when I read Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. It’s a rollicking good read but I won’t go into too much detail as this will spoil the story for those who haven’t yet read this excellent piece of science fiction which borders very much on science fact. A key element of the story is to use biomimicry of weaver ants to develop swarms of lethal quadcopter drones that once unleashed can operate without human intervention and control. Weaver ants are able to communicate with one another by laying down and following pheromone trails which indicate the task to be accomplished be that foraging or territory defense. In the case of territory defense the trail will lead more and more ants to the sites where defense is necessary and even large intruders are soon overcome by the multitudes of smaller weaver ants that converge on the site. The brain power of individual weaver ants is of course very small but the colony achieves highly effective defense by getting large numbers in the right place at the right time to attack and kill the intruders. So imagine using biomimicry to transfer this ability to a swarm of drones, each drone with highly limited AI and equipped with simple but effective weapons.
This led me to ponder the role of design strategies in general. In themselves they might be considered neutral in terms of being intrinsically good or bad but their use will of course depend on the intentions pursued by the designer. So the buck clearly stops with us humans. The case of robots and the intention to use them in warfare has led Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics & Public Engagement University of Sheffield, to urge extreme caution and argue for international conventions to govern their development. So as always with design & technology we find ourselves in territory where values are as important if not more so than knowledge, understanding and skills.