Nature and AI Catalyzing Transformative Innovations and Sustainable Solutions

The transformative potential of artificial intelligence (AI) is just beginning to take place, says Prof. Subra Suresh, President of the Global Learning Council (GLC). GLC is a global organization committed to advancing the use of science and technology to improve outcomes for learners, and in recent years, we have focused on AI’s impact on learning. The council has been cautious about AI in the past few years, but after this year’s meeting, we were confident that AI will bring transformative changes to humanity.

In his keynote speech, “Learning from Nature and Machines,” at this year’s annual conference held in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, Suresh noted that he is no longer apprehensive about AI. Instead, he says AI brings endless opportunities, creating new knowledge and wisdom. His lengthy speech contained many examples of nature-inspired innovations and how humanity is leveraging AI to unlock some mysteries. In this post, I attempt to review Suresh’s speech.

Nature and AI are inspiring transformative innovations. Suresh demonstrated a remarkable example of collective intelligence and self-organization using the phenomenon of migratory birds flying in a V-shaped formation. This aerodynamic arrangement reduces air resistance and energy expenditure for each bird, as they can take advantage of the upward lift generated by the bird’s flapping wings in front. Moreover, the V-formation allows the birds to communicate and coordinate their movements more efficiently, as they can see each other and adjust their positions and speeds accordingly. The V-formation is not innate but learned by young birds from their elders during their first migration. Thus, the birds demonstrate both individual and social learning and the ability to optimize their flight performance through cooperation and adaptation.

A similar principle of aerodynamics and coordination can be applied to artificial systems, such as fighter jets. By flying in a V-formation, the jets can reduce their drag, increase their range, and improve their communication and situational awareness. The jets can also adjust their formation depending on the mission objectives and environmental conditions, such as weather, terrain, or enemy threats. The V-formation of fighter jets is an example of how engineers leverage nature to innovate complex war machinery.

Another fascinating example of nature and AI is the Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant that can capture and digest insects. The Venus flytrap has a unique mechanism for trapping its prey: it has two lobes on each leaf that are sensitive to touch and can snap shut when stimulated by an insect. The plant can distinguish between living and non-living stimuli, avoiding wasting energy on inanimate objects. The plant also secretes digestive enzymes that break down the insect’s body and absorb nutrients.

The Venus flytrap inspires new knowledge in various fields, such as robotics, biotechnology, and medicine. For instance, researchers have developed a bio-inspired robot that mimics the snapping motion of the Venus flytrap and can capture fast-moving objects with high accuracy and efficiency. The robot can also be controlled by electrical signals, making it possible to integrate it with artificial neural networks and sensors. Another example is developing a synthetic material that can change shape and function, like the Venus flytrap, which can be used for applications such as drug delivery, tissue engineering, and intelligent textiles. The Venus flytrap exemplifies how nature and AI can enrich each other and create novel solutions for complex challenges.

Let me share one last example, which is more profound. Subra and others at the National University of Singapore transformed sunflower pollen into paper and, ultimately, a paper-like material that can be used for electronic devices, such as wearable sensors and solar cells. The researchers used a chemical process to transform the pollen grains into hollow microcapsules coated with carbon or other materials to create flexible and conductive films. These films have remarkable properties, such as self-healing, biodegradability, and tunable optical and electrical characteristics. The researchers also demonstrated that the pollen-based films can create organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that emit bright and stable light. Sunflower pollen is an abundant and renewable resource that offers a sustainable alternative to conventional materials for electronics and other applications. This is another example of how nature and AI can collaborate to create innovative and eco-friendly solutions.

Finally, demonstrated the development of synthetic diamond nanoparticles is being used to deliver gene therapy for sickle cell anaemia, a condition that has limitations such as availability and infection risk. Coated with gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9, these nanoparticles can restore normal red blood cell function and improve symptoms. They are biocompatible, stable, non-toxic, and can be tracked using fluorescence imaging, demonstrating the potential of synthetic diamonds in treating severe diseases.

We have seen how nature and AI can inspire and benefit each other in various domains and applications. By studying the mechanisms and functions of natural phenomena, such as the Venus flytrap, sunflower pollen, and synthetic diamonds, researchers can develop new technologies and materials that solve complex problems and improve human lives. Conversely, researchers can enhance the performance and functionality of natural systems and materials by applying AI techniques, such as machine learning, robotics, and gene editing. These examples show how nature and AI can form a positive feedback loop, leading to innovation and sustainability.

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