Wireless Sensor Networks - How they imitate Nature
Wireless Sensor Networks are the very cutting edge of innovation in information technology. Nevertheless, in this post, we are going to look at how human ingenuity, as is often the case, is inspired by the natural world. In case of wireless sensor networks, the parallels are obvious - the human nervous system. In learning from and initiating the biological world in our technology, we end up creating technologies that don’t sacrifice the forest for the creeper.
Those of us steeped in the world of technology and gadgetry may not be jumping to admit this - but the fact remains that the natural world is a never-ending source of inspiration, guidance and motivation. To be fair, this is how it has always been and some may argue - how it should be. Human ingenuity deserves its own share of praise and adulation but it is fairly easy to see how it pales in comparison to the ineffable genius that pervades the natural world.
After all, the organic world, with its myriad expressions in millions of life forms, demonstrates a perfection and parsimony that remains hard for human beings to emulate. When we innovate, it usually ends up solving one problem without taking into the account the big picture. On the other hand, if we were to weigh each of our solutions against the entire gamut of global ramifications they might have, no innovation would actually take place.
More than advancing one point or another, this piece is an attempt to invite the reader on a reflection through a certain prism of viewing technology and biology - a confluence that appears so magically fruitful when we get it right.
This is not some new idea either - for centuries, we have looked to the world of flora and fauna for inspiration and ideas - the modern airplane, modern self-learning neural networks or even the humble velcro are just a few examples that spring to mind
Why is this so? Why must we even try to emulate the natural world?
This is a fairly easy question to answer - Technology is a great enabler - we know this. However, it is also plain for all to see that technology can easily become an enabler for some of our worst tendencies as a species. Conferences and global summits often emphasize the need for technology to be more sustainable and holistic. More often than not, these turn out to be empty words. But there is a deep truth to the sentiment behind these calls - We humans, in our quest to build ever shinier and sharper tools of information, are arguably headed towards global ecological collapse. Don’t worry - this won’t be one of those sanctimonious posts that leave a painfully sanctimonious aftertaste to your morning coffee - However, the essential truth is this - while the human intellect has a remarkable ability to conceive of and bring to fruition, incredible creations and technologies, it often fails to see the big picture.
This is not to say that we should abandon our technological endeavours altogether - we at ONiO are proud lovers of technology and have always insisted that technology, when done right, can be an answer to pretty much any problem that life throws at us. It is in this context that we thought we should meditate on the topic of how nature can serve as a muse for all us techno-nuts, in creating paradigms of technology that don’t just serve one cause at the expense of all others - the beauty of nature’s designs lies in the fact that while individual species and even sub-structures within a species engage in a brutal struggle for dominance, the interest of the whole is seldom compromised in the long term.
This, in essence, is what ecological growth means - to our minds, something never quite adds up when clarion calls are issued to stop technological progress - on twitter no less! You might find it easy to agree that there is an obvious contradiction between the way we live our lives and the impassioned pleas we make to dismantle technology, when moved by the plight of polar bears or coral reefs.
But, here’s the thing we need to accept - technology isn’t going anywhere. It may not have taken the same form, but technology has existed and grown since time immemorial - fire, wheels, spears fashioned from sticks - well you get the point. Technology in one way or the other has always existed. The question is not whether technology is good or bad - nor even whether it needs to slow down - the question is how sophisticated our technology is going to be. Sophisticated not in the sense of how many terabytes it can process or some other such numerical metric - but, sophisticated in the sense of how integrated it ends up being: i.e just how global it is in it’s perspective and function - if all it does is solve one problem but create another, then in this sense, it is a very primitive modality of technology, We’re trying to entertain the idea here that technology, as it continues evolving, can do more than just serve our immediate needs - as we continue building more and more refined methods of processing our needs, we will inevitably start to resemble nature and her ineffable ways.
After all, nature has been doing the same thing for ages - nature constantly innovates - and mind you, she is not in a rush - Biologists favour the term stochastic to describe the way things move in the organic world. A progression that seems widely chaotic but seems to capture a highly sophisticated rhythm when observed in the right context over a long period of time. A process where errors (apparent ones anyway) are constantly made and corrected. Insertions, modifications and deletions occur seemingly out of nowhere - be it in the genetic code of humans or in the larger world of animal and plant biodiversity.
But again, we feel obliged to remind you that we’re no philosophers or even well trained biologists for that matter - here in this piece, all we are trying to do is engage in a bit of child-like wondering.
If all this sounds aspirational, that’s very understandable. In fact, that is exactly why this exploration is worthwhile at all - we are nowhere near the sort of sophistication we are trying to talk about here. The biological world is at best an ideal that we can shoot for at the moment. And even that is problematic in a lot of cases - for instance, let’s take oil - most of us probably know that it is a very crude way of enabling mobility and generating energy - and yet, the inconvenient truth remains that for all our advancements in alternative energy, we simply can’t forego 90% of what’s done using oil and other fossil fuels.
But the aim nevertheless should be to imitate the inherently holistic ways of the natural world. While we may stumble and fail in the process, the end-result, even if half-baked, can only lead to better ways of organizing the massive civilisational apparatus that we are ensconced by.
Why is it that it is so hard for us to naturally build better systems? Humans, in their technological pursuits, have a few notable disadvantages compared to the world of living organisms - firstly and probably most pertinently, time! Nature takes its own sweet time when it goes about perfecting, discarding and improving its machines. Now, that’s obvious. But here, we focus on something else - nature inevitably ends up being economical. There is an economy and minimalism to pretty much any biological specimen you end up examining - irrespective of whether it is an ecosystem, an organism or a cell!
OK OK where are you going with all this?
Wireless sensors come to the party
This article began with a mention of wireless sensor networks - the parallels are impossible to miss when it comes to an example like WSN - whether we like it or not, nature remains the big boss when it comes to executing large-scale innovation and disruption whilst simultaneously being harmonious and holistic.
Do excuse us if we come across a bit rambly in this post. We spend most of our time dealing with chips, integrated circuits and worse yet - risk-averse venture capitalists - when the rare opportunity presents itself to concern ourselves with the philosophical, the earthy and the poetic, we do get carried away.
Getting back to the point,
Let’s talk about wireless sensor networks for a bit. Wireless sensor networks are an especially convenient fulcrum on which to balance the ideas that are being put forth here. The crowning glory of the organic world and its stochastic processes of elegant progression is the human nervous system. Dizzying in its scale, robustness and complexity, the human brain continues to baffle biologists and philosophers alike.
For one, the sheer scale of function that it manages to compress into a pound of flesh, an antenna and a few hundred thousand cables simply defies imagination. Let’s take the example of this very article - at the risk of resorting to cliches, just to comprehend the astounding sophistication of a system that can process such an exposition on itself while barely even stretching itself to 2-3% of its capability - that is just impossible! However, when you account for the fact that it is doing this while keeping your heart running, your breathing going and probably digesting that cheeky second bagel you had for breakfast - now that makes one run out of words!
IoT-networks, even the amateur can point out, often tend to work in similar ways - at least, they are structured similarly and are aimed at being exactly the kind of sophisticated setup that nervous systems are. No we’re not saying they’re just as sophisticated as even a rat’s nervous system - they’re not! But the parallels are what we’re interested in - it’s terribly fascinating how the most modern means we have come up with to collect, synthesize and systematically operate with data
Think of a typical wireless sensor network - wait a minute - let’s get the definitions out of the way. For those of you that may be unfamiliar, here’s the wikipedia definition,
“Wireless sensor networks (WSNs) refer to networks of spatially dispersed and dedicated sensors that monitor and record the physical conditions of the environment and forward the collected data to a central location.”
Now, here’s what that means in normal-person talk - a wireless sensor network refers to a bunch of wireless sensors (or nodes as they are called) hooked up to each other and possibly to a backend, through a gateway, through the internet. These nodes are designed to collect specific kinds of information from their environment - if that sounds abstract, it is intended to be so - because wireless sensors can be purpose-built to carry out pretty much any kind of operation. Irrespective of what the function is that they are built to carry out, they almost always have one thing in common - they enable a more optimised workflow and make for some incredible gains in terms of efficiency and output.
Why is this?
Let’s try an analogy - imagine playing whack a mole in the conventional way. And now imagine playing it with the help of an advanced system that alerts you just a second before as to which hole the mole is going to pop out of - it’s obvious to see why you would score a lot more points in the second scenario. This, in a nutshell, is why WSNs and IoT-based solutions enable efficiency and productivity - intelligence!
The more information we can gather within any scenario, and the more efficiently and comprehensively we can utilize it, the better our results are going to be, whatever they might be for that particular domain.
Let’s take the example of medicine or agriculture - two areas where a new paradigm of precision is being ushered in by IoT implementation. These are easy domains to relate to, owing to the fact that all of us both consume products of agriculture and need healthcare assistance - In the case of agriculture, simplistically speaking, there are a few core objectives - The business owner needs to ensure a good crop amidst numerous variables that are hard to predict and nearly impossible to control - rain, soil quality, humidity, pest prevalence etc. to name a few. At best, he can control a few of these factors but even that is made impossible when scale is accounted for. This is where implementing a wireless sensor network can work wonders - with a stack of sensors comprising those that check for humidity, temperature, precipitation and soil moisture and other relevant parameters, dispersed around the farm, the farmer is able to obtain a level of insight and intelligence into the inner workings of his business. It’s not just insights though - modern IoT setups employ state-of-the-art technologies like Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and the like, to implement effective and highly precise interventions based on the gathered intelligence. Typically, such a setup would be made up of a few key components - Firstly, you’d have the nodes themselves - wireless sensors that form the data gathering arm of the operation. They would typically be dispersed all across the area of operation and perform various predetermined sets of functions - i.e gather certain dedicated types of information from their environment. Then, there would be a gateway or base station that links the nodes to the end user. Depending on the complexity and sophistication of the setup, you would either have a simple backend or a hugely feature-rich, AI-enabled processing unit that crunches the data in meaningful ways. In highly automated systems, you would also find an arm that enables implementation of interventions based on the insights gathered.
Just to make the picture a bit clearer, let’s also take a look at the second use-case we spoke about - precision medicine - without getting too fussy about the details. The problem that IoT aims to solve here is quite straightforward - the way healthcare is delivered today is no doubt highly advanced and complex - but it has a number of shortcomings by design. There is a shortage of skilled professionals, a lack of comprehensive follow-up post admission or consultation and moreover, huge scope for human error.
An IoT future
No matter how trained or skilled your physician is, he is human after all. Medical science grows every day and it is churlish to expect any medical professional, no matter how dedicated to his craft, to keep up. Let’s not even go that far though - even assuming enough skilled manpower and excellent facilities, healthcare is something that is achieved not at the hospital but in every waking moment of a person’s life - We can ameliorate this problem to a great extent using wireless sensor technology. Much like in the case of the agricultural operation, healthcare can benefit greatly from implementing wireless sensor networks - the opportunities are nearly endless. The idea is essentially this - why not take the large, unwieldy and often inadequate systems of healthcare around us and organize them more efficiently by controlling the flow of information with an unprecedented level of precision and granularity.
Much like in the case of the agricultural operation, healthcare can benefit greatly from having a network of sensors that constantly feed contextual data related to various aspects of the patient’s daily routine - from his diet and vitals to his level of activity, all the way to his mental state. This would enable doctors to obtain a previously unparalleled insight into their patients and detect early signs of deterioration or issues. Additionally, it would also make follow-up much easier - with detailed information about their patients readily available, doctors can provide better aftercare and ensure long term health outcomes.
This is where the true potential of wireless sensor networks lies - not in replacing humans or making them obsolete as some alarmist commentators would have you believe, but in augmenting their capabilities, in giving them an extra pair of hands when it comes to doing what they do best - helping us live better lives. Wireless sensor networks are able to reach out with their tendrils (nodes) and dig deep into the crevices of any given operation. They gather tons and tons of data in real time and then use this information to come up with extremely usable and highly focused insights.
This is exactly what the human nervous system excels at - The human nervous system is constantly engaged in a process of adaptation to the stimuli that it gets from the environment - IoT-based wireless sensor networks, at their best, do the same. In a wireless sensor network, nodes are placed at various locations and they interface with each other and with a central hub - much like the human nervous system. The similarities are striking - in place of nodes and sensors, we have our instruments of perception - the receptors that make up our senses. Where wireless sensor networks have a dense network between each other, we have our peripheral nervous system with its hundreds of millions of nerve fibers, ganglia and spinal roots.
CNS - WSN
Our nervous systems operate on the principles of incremental optimisation and a near endless scope for adaptation - Say you are an avid guitarist - when you start you suck, and that hurts - this icky feeling of discomfort and pain triggers an entire cascade of neurological responses which then prime your nervous system to make the requisite changes - over a period of time, these changes add up and create actual structural and functional changes throughout your system - which then make you a better guitarist. The IoT systems we have around us try their best to be as comprehensive, economical and efficient at crunching data as biological neural webs - crunching data and coming up with incremental improvements that add up to massive returns over time.
The parallels between wireless sensor networks and the human nervous system don't end there. Just as in a sensor network, where data is gathered by individual nodes and relayed to a central hub, information is processed by our brain in a similar way. The difference here, of course, is that while sensors can only relay data, the human brain has the ability to make sense of it. But hey, we’ve been working on that too - IoT networks today are not just dumb data gathering machines - With the help of cutting-edge technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence, we are now able to create systems that try their best to make sense of these massive amounts of data and use them to come up with innovative insights.
With the right IoT setup, we are able to create a situation of automated optimisation - Without any significant human intervention. Going back to our earlier examples, healthcare providers can now rely on machines to help them keep up with the ever-growing body of medical knowledge, making sure that no patient ever falls through the cracks. In agriculture, we could see a future where every inch of land is used productively and farmers have access to real-time information about their crops. The possibilities are endless - all we need to do is tap into them. Agriculture and healthcare are just two relatable examples we have picked out of thousands - just to give you an easy idea. But in reality, these principles are being employed across a huge range of industries to solve all manner of problems.
Ok we’re feeling self-conscious now - we’ve been going on a bit. If you’ve made it to the end of this rambling post, you probably know just how much we love the world of IoT and technology - we think IoT can be our ally in combating some of the most pressing concerns that plague our existence today. But also, they can open up possibilities that we simply can’t even conceive of today - An exciting future to look forward to indeed!