Module 4: Emergent Behavior

Written by: Ritu Raman (University of Illinois)

Edited by: Professor Rashid Bashir (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Professor Lizanne DeStefano (Georgia Tech), and Professor Roger Kamm (MIT)

Emergent behavior, which we define as a functional response emerging from a complex multi-part system that cannot be observed in individual components of the system, is one of the most interesting and useful advantages of building biological machines. Once the underlying principles governing any perceived emergent behavior are understood (an example in the physical world is phase transition in a material in response to changes in temperature and/or pressure), emergent behavior is precisely predictable and controllable. However, until these underlying principles are discovered and characterized, emergent behavior can producing outcomes that are surprising.

Suppose the first emergent property or behavior demonstrated by a forward-engineered bio-bot proves to be harmful to the bio-bot itself, or to its surroundings. Discuss the following questions with a small group:

1.     Should EBICS researchers attempt to understand the underlying principles governing this behavior, or does this risk further experiments that could produce bio-bots with potentially harmful behaviors?

2.     Supposing EBICS researchers attain an understanding of the underlying principles governing this behavior, should they publish their results, at the risk of someone misusing these results to produce harmful societal outcomes? 

3.     What engineering/procedural controls can EBICS researchers implement that could help guard against harmful emergent behaviors?

4.     How can EBICS researchers ensure that such engineering/procedural controls would be followed by researchers outside our community?

Choose a representative from your group to present your results to the EBICS community.

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