In our arboreal prehistory the trees provided both a sheltering canopy and frequently our means of sustenance. With sufficient diversity the forest could provide a myriad of complex organic chemicals. Medicines, nutrition, cover and a myriad of resources were available at close range within the primeval forests. If we try to imagine the development of inventions like rope, fibers, and thread it is obvious that natural objects like vines could have provided a example of the virtue of the form. Diversity supplies not just exotic chemicals but a ready supply of morphological adaptations which can either be employed directly as tools or abstractly as examples.
And spatial diversity may provide a needed opportunity to buck some powerful trends.
Newton asked if the moon falls, not if moons universally empower the emergence of the idea of otherworldly beings by providing visual evidence that other worlds are ‘terrestrial’ to any intelligent species that can look skyward. Neither the consideration of the element or the whole should be neglected. Formal reductionism has, throughout recorded history, permeated our culture and perhaps most obnoxiously it has manifested as the standardization found in manufacturing. Bricks were among the first manufactured products. Forms impose shapes on bricks and those bricks impose shapes on buildings and therefore the patterns that people follow and the civilization itself. I would wager our minds are deeply affected by orthogonal geometries and the constraint of tessellation.
Not to decry tessellation, even unkempt mangroves form a honeycomb when viewed from the air. Late in the twentieth century people generalized the abstraction that it is very useful to mimic biology in design . At about the same time, a similar perspective, regarding the limitations of reductionism emerged among the varied disciplines that had formerly been averse to complex systemic analysis and Gestalt notions . If we think of an ecosystem as an engine of adaptation that produces combinatoric variations on compounds of light elements and physical topologies, we can start to imagine an ecosystem as a source of variations not just to gene pools but to the minds of their occupants. When Tom Ray created the first artificial ecosystems it became obvious that complexity accrues in complex interdependent ecologies.
Think of the reduction in novelty among the minds of a population which resides in a mostly static manufactured monocultural landscape. Every source of inspiration is constrained from its inception by the requirement to be linearly extruded or cast with tell-tale seams. What a horrid source of soul crushing allegory the common uniform brick and its macrocosm the wall. Walls preserve socio-economic divides that tend to create the need for walls. And so they grow and continue to divide, defining the polarities of their times, China, Berlin, Arizona.
If architecture weren’t so useful it would certainly suffer a PR problem. Early in the nineteenth century authors of the transcendental literary movement in America had already begun to celebrate the “return to nature” which is frequently referenced within our culture . By the 1970’s many computer scientists and systems ecologists began looking at nature not just as a source of psychic respite but instead as a supplier of useful variations and efficient aggregator of that information . From the perspective of a cognitive psychologist these two phenomena are not entirely separable. Juergen Schmidhuber insists that compression progress is equivalent to the evaluation which is used by humans to generate our sense of interest . When we see a tree, if we intuitively recognize that the proportions of the lengths of its branches follow an arithmetic progression like the Fibonacci sequence or that the proportion of the widths and the angles of separation from trunk to limb to twig follow a fractal or recursive design, it follows that we will derive a sense of pleasure from those realizations. What happens next is nearly magic: we cease to be able to derive pleasure from the stimuli because all of its regularities have already been employed in prior compression steps.
We become enured to regularity, it is doomed to being temporarily satisfying. The capability to reduce complex signals to sub-symbolic representations and the behavior of losing interest after that process occurs probably causes the constant novelty seeking which is responsible for both the physical spread of our species across the earth and our remarkable technological progress. This adaptation likely arose because our ancestors were tested by a complex ever-changing ecosystem for millions of years. Chalmers established the fact that a diversity of problem tasks will lead to the evolution of a more generic learning capability . By extension I contend that the same applies to meta-learning. Schmidhuber claims that the ability to reduce novel regularities out of our cognitive intake is satisfying. This seems to comport with ideas presented by Emerson and Thoreau . I would like to go further, I believe that systems like those found in nature can be engineered and that we can design the satisfaction nature provides, into buildings, by making them living things. I believe we can engineer systems that are net positive with respect to useful information and that the best place for such a system is surrounding a human rather than isolated in an ivory tower. Imagine a rooftop cabbage patch that solves math problems.
Imagine if your home was also your principle tranducer of energy. Imagine if your home was spatially capable of occluding you from your neighbors but close enough that you can easily meet in a commons. Imagine that your home and local environment provided a variety of foods and raw materials. Now imagine that your home grew, not just spatially, but grew in terms of complexity, like a garden not just of vegetables but of ideas and activities themselves. Straightforward feedback circuits supplanted many of the tedious activities of the nineteenth century, but the introduction of Artificial Intelligence will allow us to not only automate the agriculture/manufacturing/energy complex of tomorrows homes but additionally supply imagery, sounds, flavors, odors, sensations, and even the mental and physical challenges, that are best suited to human fulfillment.
What if such machine/home/living things could self replicate? I believe we are surprisingly close to being able to bring about a number of valuable societal trends by utilizing self replication that utilizes ubiquitous resources along with open source design. Resource independence is not out of reach. Be warned, addressing the mental and spiritual health of people empowered with this type of technology is probably just as important as solving the initial problems of greed, starvation, and energy dependence. Jumping from one set of problems to the next isn’t progress, it simply indicates a preference for novelty.
 John H. Holland. 1996. Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity. Addison Wesley Longman Publishing Co., Inc., Redwood City, CA, USA.  Ray, T. S. 1994. An evolutionary approach to synthetic biology: Zen and the art of creating life. Artificial Life 1(1/2): 179-209. Reprinted In : Langton, C. G. [ed.], Artificial Life, an overview. The MIT Press, 1995, 179-209.
This article originally appeared on Corey’s blog at http://correyallenkowalltypeswhathethinks.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-intelligent-living-home-as-source.html
Need more deep forest futurism?
Check out Harvard’s Ecological Urbanism site: http://ecologicalurbanism.gsd.harvard.edu/ and also http://urbanlabglobalcities.blogspot.com/2011/01/shifting-into-eco-city-two-chinese.html