AS COMPUTER SCIENTISTS try and figure out how to manage an increasingly complex digital world, they are increasingly turning for inspiration to Mother Nature. “Life runs on sunlight and information,” says Janine Benyus, president of the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Mont. A species is constantly evolving to find the optimal way to survive in a particular habitat. “Organisms really do lend themselves to people looking for novel ways to solve information-processing problems,” she says.
Dendritic cells, for instance, would seem at first glance to have nothing to do with computer security. But these cells are Paul Reveres of the mammalian immune system, sounding the alarm on invading pathogens. Computer scientist Julie Greensmith of the University of Nottingham in England designed a “dendritic cell algorithm” that detects computer viruses and other malicious code in the same way that our immune systems sense real viruses.
Ants and other social insects have inspired another team of cybersecurity researchers, at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. They have created “digital ants” that can roam a computer network the same way that real ants patrol a nest and quickly swarm around any perceived threat.
Such “bioinspired” algorithms are as old as Turing machines and other classical models of computation, says Melanie Mitchell, a computer scientist at Portland State University. But in a Web-connected world increasingly saturated by “Big Data”—hundreds of exabytes of information are generated every year—code based on nature may be the best way to deal with the load. “There's a huge amount of interest in new collaborations between biological and computer sciences because people are realizing that computation goes beyond what we call ‘computers,’” Mitchell explains. “One of the main things that all these biological systems do so well is pattern recognition—pulling signal out of the noise even when they're inundated with information. Brains do it, individual cells do it, insect colonies do it—that's what all biological systems do in order to live. And we'd like computers to do that, too.”