Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Learning from plants...

There are many questions that intrigue me with answers to which I'm thoroughly oblivious. Today, I'll post one.

The idea of learning from biology interests me. I believe nature holds keys to many engineering and optimization problems and that science is still only scratching the surface.

Plants, for example, need various resources such as nutrients and energy. Since they don't tend to move very quickly and their senses aren't very good (compared to animals), plants have evolved their own strategies for seeking nutrients and sunlight--branching at various rates in various directions, growing leaves of various shapes and sizes and spreading those leaves subject to various morphological constraints.

There are many computational problems involving similarly blind searching. In terms of optimal strategies and algorithms, can anything be learned from plants? Has any research been done? How fruitful has it been? How well do the concepts scale to higher dimensions? Etc., etc., etc.

As I said, this is a question to which I'm thoroughly oblivious.

I spent a little time searching, but there's the usual problem is finding the right disciplines, determining terminologies used in each discipline, etc. Perhaps it's a matter of looking in the wrong places, but I didn't find much. I did find quite a few references by researchers seeking to model plant structures towards the end of visual simulation and 3D graphics, but I found very little work done with an eye toward optimization (or structural engineering, for that matter).

In the process of looking, I found an interesting paper titled Morphological Evolution through Complex Domains of Fitness by Karl J. Niklas (abstract). In it, he discusses the simulation of the evolution of early plants using a six parameter model which includes branching probabilities, bifurcation angles and rotation angles. Also, an early (1986) paper on computer-simulated plant evolution (link).



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