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Posted By Peter Bentley
I've been asked to be a consultant on the IT Future of Medicine EU Flagship project proposal team. This is an exciting vision of the future of medicine, where computers will be used to model all aspects of patients to provide doctors with personalised predictions of likely illnesses for their patients. The flagship, if funded, will be something of the scale of the Apollo Space Programme - integrating data and models with the latest high performance computing, cloud computing and mobile computing technologies. My experience in modelling, for example as described in the book On Growth, Form and Computers (and in the work with many of my PhD students) and medical computing - for example, through the iStethoscope Pro app should hopefully be of some benefit!

Posted By Peter Bentley
I recently came across the video of the talk I gave for Ars Eectronica in 2003. Not much to see - just me on stage with a microphone and a few slides, but the (slightly fuzzy) audio is now online. My audience was a bunch of computational artists who as usual I managed to insult (always a good trick to make 'em listen). One tried to be a bit rude at the end with her question, but you'll note the admirable patience I showed :) I talk about code, and how programming computers and biological systems relate to each other. Those who know where my research went in the following 5 years will find many of the concepts I describe familiar. You can listen to the 40 minute talk, including questions, here: y/arstalk.mp3

Posted By Peter Bentley
On July 9, 2007 I played "Dimbleby" to a debate in the Great Hall of the Natural History Museum. We'd invited Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Lewis Wolpert. (Richard did the foreword for my first book, Steve suggested I use his literary agent when I was writing Digital Biology- which I did, and Lewis collaborated with one of my PhD students). It was great fun, with our voices echoing out and reaching the ears of 600 people in the audience. The topic was evolution of compexity, and we covered a good range of topics. The occasion formed the keynote event for the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference that I helped run at UCL at the same time. You can still download the audio or video of the whole event from here: aff/p. bentley/evodebate.html

Posted By Peter Bentley
Here's the second half of the same interview.

- Regarding robots; are genetic algorithms the best approach to make it move? That is, do they yield the best performance, and aren't they limited by lack of processing power or a long time needed to evolve a movement behaviour?

GAs are a great idea if you want to incorporate ideas of embodiment. In other words, if you want your robot to be able to affect its environment in as many ways as possible, and if you want the environment to affect the robot (resulting in improved body and brain) as much as possible. This is how natural organisms are - they shape their world, and their world shapes them. Evolution enables us to test robots in the real world and has a wonderful ability to exploit everything possible to improve those robots. The downside is of course that we can't really evolve robots. We don't have robots that can have children (or that can build themselves), so if we want to use GAs right now, we have to use a combination of computer simulation and physical testing, which can be slow.

- As a sort of subquestion to the one above, do you think evolutionary algorithms are the way to go to make robots robust for hardware failure?

I think evolution is half of the solution. The other half is development (or embroygenesis). If we evolve a growth process, which generates our desired hardware, then that hardware "knows" what it wants to be. So if it gets damaged, the growth process automatically replaces the damaged elements. This is an important trick that we've only just begun to explore, but we're all very excited about the possibilities.

Posted By Peter Bentley
Here's an interview by email with a journalist, in 2005.

- On a very general level speaking, why biomimetics? Can nature do a better job than humans engineers, or can nature do something that human engineers can't? Or is there some other reason?

The answer to both questions is yes and no. Engineers are much better than nature for certain applications, and they can do things nature can't do (like design rockets to take us into space). But nature is packed full of trillions of intricate designs, from the molecular structure of a virus, to the eye of an eagle, to the elegant symbiosis of a rain-forest. There's a lot of designs to learn from, and also the processes that produce those designs can teach us a great deal. Nature already has nanotechnology in the form of DNA, proteins and cells. Nature has technology that adapts to new situations and environments, self-replicates, builds itself, repairs itself and designs itself. Nature also has some of the most complex designs in the universe - like the human brain or immune system. These are all features that we would love our technology to have, but we can't do any of them. Yet.

- Do you think biomimetics if often the best approach? Or is it only applicable to certain specific areas?

I think you must require some of those capabilities I list above. If you don't want adaptability, self-repair, or a massively complex design that works, then you may find that an engineer is better able to create a cheap and quick solution.

- What do you think the prevalence of biomimetics in the future will be, especially regarding biomimetic machines?

I think the two areas that are most important are: (1) applications where complexity needs to be managed better, and (2) applications where coping with the unexpected is important. An example of the first area is ubiquitous computing - in a few years we will have computers in *everything* and they'll all be talking to each other. If we don't learn how to do this, then when you walk into a new building you may find your glasses crash, your phone malfunctions and the elevators stop working for you - all the computers shouting at each other will cause chaos around you. Adding security to such systems will also be very important. An example of the second area is any safety-critical system, from air-traffic control to car engine management. Obviously we'd prefer these systems to adapt and cope with unexpected situations such as damage or unforeseen environmental conditions. A classic example of both areas combined is autonomous robotics - if you send a robot to Mars, you ideally want a complex system capable of coping in new environments. Once these kinds of systems are perfected, we might one day see consumer electronics with similar capabilities - televisions that repair themselves. But that won't be for a while (especially since people make money from repairing or replacing TVs).