Pervasive Flexibility in Living Technologies through Degeneracy Based Design

James Whitacre, Axel Bender

The capacity to adapt can greatly influence the success of systems that need to compensate for damaged parts, learn how to achieve robust performance in new environments, or exploit novel opportunities that originate from new technological interfaces or emerging markets. Many of the conditions in which technology is required to adapt cannot be anticipated during its design stage, creating a significant challenge for the designer. Inspired by the study of a range of biological systems, we propose that degeneracy - the realization of multiple, functionally versatile components with contextually overlapping functional redundancy - will support adaptation in technologies because it effects pervasive flexibility, evolutionary innovation, and homeostatic robustness. We provide examples of degeneracy in a number of rudimentary living technologies from military socio-technical systems to swarm robotics and we present design principles - including protocols, loose regulatory coupling, and functional versatility - that allow degeneracy to arise in both biological and man-made systems.

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