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Living machinesA handbook of research in biomimetics and biohybrid systems$

Tony J. Prescott, Nathan Lepora, and Paul F.M.J Verschure

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780199674923

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199674923.001.0001

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A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

(p.602) Chapter 64 A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems
Living machines

Anna Mura

Tony J. Prescott

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Living Machines approach, which can be seen as an exemplar methodology for a wider initiative towards “convergent science,” implies and requires a transdisciplinary understanding that bridges from between science and engineering and to the social sciences, arts, and humanities. In addition, it emphasizes a mix of basic and applied approaches whilst also requiring an awareness of the societal context in which modern research and innovation activities are conducted. This chapter explores the education landscape for postgraduate programs related to the concept of Living Machines, highlighting some challenges that should be addressed and providing suggestions for future course development and policy making. The chapter also reviews some of the within-discipline and across-discipline programs that currently exist, particularly within Europe and the US, and outlines an exemplar degree program that could provide the multi-faceted training needed to pursue research and innovation in Living Machines.

Keywords:   biomimetic, biohybrid, living machines, convergent science, transdisciplinary, education, science policy making

Biomimetics and biohybrid systems—together the domain of Living Machines—are emerging research fields based on the understanding and application of natural principles to the development of novel real-world technologies. Moreover, the Living Machines approach, as highlighted in this volume, emphasizes the strategy of understanding through making (see Verschure and Prescott, Chapter 2, this volume), that is, the construction of artifacts as embodiments of theories of natural systems in addition to being candidate solutions to societal challenges. This approach therefore implies, and requires, a transdisciplinary undertaking that bridges between science, engineering, and the social sciences, arts, and humanities. In addition, it also emphasizes a mix of basic and applied approaches that requires an awareness of the broader societal context in which modern research and innovation activities are conducted. The future of this research depends critically on engaging young minds from different educational backgrounds and providing them with relevant transdisciplinary training. This chapter provides a brief exploration of the education landscape for within-discipline and across-discipline programs related to Living Machines, focusing on Europe and the United States (US), highlighting some challenges that should be addressed, and providing some suggestions for future course development and policy making.

Education for a new scientific Renaissance

In order to build novel advanced artifacts based on biological principles we need to understand, not only mimic, nature and life and to base technology on this fundamental understanding. Progress in Living Machines therefore relies more generally on progress in both the natural sciences and in the engineering disciplines. This idea also dominated the interest and curiosity of one of the greatest geniuses of the Renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci. Working at the confluence of science, technology, and art, da Vinci considered these disciplines as instruments with which to address the same objective—advancing the understanding of nature and of the human condition. In doing so he mastered biology, engineering, physics, anatomy, drawing, and painting to explore the solutions embodied by living organisms and to create technical designs and working machines of various kinds. For example, Figure 64.1 shows a da Vinci drawing for the design of a flying machine motivated by his observations of the structure of the wings of a bat, placed alongside a contemporary bat-inspired robot that actually flies. As a man of the Renaissance, da (p.603) Vinci used interdisciplinary methods—writing treatises on mechanics, anatomy, cosmology, hydraulic, and Earth sciences. In this sense, his work can be considered as a true precursor to modern forms of biomimetics and biohybridicity.

A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systemsA sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

Figure 64.1 (a) Leonardo da Vinci’s 1488 design for a flying machine inspired by the wings of a bat. (b) A contemporary bat-inspired robot designed by Ramezani et al. (2017). The B2 “bat bot”, which is capable of autonomous flight, was created through a collaboration between bat biologists and robot engineers and instantiates the dominant degrees of freedom of the bat-wing without replicating its detailed morphology (and so follows the design methodology advocated in this book).

(a) Image: © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/ Getty Images

Over recent decades we have witnessed a rapid growth of biomimetics research and science-driven technology with the emergence of artificial and biohybrid artifacts at the confluence of life sciences, materials science, nanotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence, as described in this volume. However, the success of these approaches—that originate from the convergence of different disciplines of knowledge—depends not only on bringing together parallel strands of scientific research and technological development, but also on providing suitable educational scaffolding. Compared to the Renaissance era, the wealth of knowledge available in the different fields related to Living Machines is such that even a polymath genius, such as da Vinci, would struggle to master a small fraction of it. On the other hand, the powerful tools available to researchers and engineers, from the internet through to specialized databases and smart design systems, mean that a new approach is possible—one that emphasizes mastery of skills in interpreting and applying knowledge without the same necessity for the personal accumulation of knowledge. The development of training programs must make the most of this revolution in the way we share and manipulate knowledge so that we can provide future Leonardos with the most appropriate training and tool-sets for building new technologies and understanding.

Many training programs exist in Europe and the US that provide an excellent grounding in the relevant science and engineering disciplines related to Living Machines research; however, this teaching often takes place within single disciplinary boundaries. For the future, it is important that more inclusive and overarching “programs of programs” are developed that support crossover and interdisciplinary training. In devising such programs we should aim to provide:

  1. 1. A sufficient grounding in the vocabulary, methodology, and technical skill sets in relevant areas of biological science to allow the extrapolation of design principles towards engineering.

  2. 2. A core understanding of engineering concepts, particularly around applied mathematical topics.

  3. 3. Training in modeling, both computational and physical, including understanding of core methodologies in the areas of programming, hardware development, and robotics.

  4. 4. An education in key topics that provide crossover and synergy between the understanding of biological and artificial systems, particularly in approaches such as dynamical systems and information theory.

  5. 5. Examples of integration across the discipline boundaries, for example, showing how research in neuroscience, neuromorphic computing, and wearable technologies can come together in the field of prosthetics (Figure 64.2).

  6. 6. An appreciation of the potential technology impacts of constructing models as artifacts, and of the societal and ethical issues around responsible innovation.

A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

Figure 64.2 An illustration of the required convergence of science and technology in the field of prosthetics (see Vassanelli, Chapter 50 and Song and Berger, Chapter 55, this volume)—investigate brain physiology and function, build neuromorphic circuits, and integrate to create biohybrid systems.

Living Machines as convergent science

There has been significant effort, since the start of the new millennium, to address the challenge of collaboration across disciplines and its potential impact in science, health, education, environment, and society. A particular focus has been on the need to promote integration between lab science and mathematics and engineering in the biological and biomedical sciences (McCarthy 2004; National Research Council 2009; Sharp and Langer 2011) for what has been (p.604) (p.605) described as a “third revolution” (the first two being molecular biology, a key moment being the discovery of the structure of DNA, and genomics for which a highlight was the sequencing of the human genome). A general drive for better collaboration between the life sciences and engineering has emerged during this period under the banner of “convergence” (National Research Council 2014; Roco and Bainbridge 2003; Roco et al. 2014; Science Europe 2014; Sharp et al. 2011; Sharp and Langer 2011). For example, two reports edited by Roco and colleagues (Roco and Bainbridge 2003; Roco et al. 2014) highlighted synergies, and common research questions and goals, between the research domains of nanotechology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (termed NBIC technologies). These optimistic reports looked forward to broad societal benefits with little downside, although European views have been more nuanced (European Commission 2004). The larger community, that is now promoting a convergence approach, and that is led by eminent institutions such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the US National Research Council, and MIT, has also called for better teaching of STEM subjects in schools, for new interdisciplinary undergraduate degrees (e.g. National Research Council 2009), to facilitate boundary-hopping particularly for early-career researchers (AAAS 2008), and for the private sector and policy makers to prioritize resources and effort to facilitate these outcomes (AAAS 2013).

Convergence has been argued to mean more than interdisciplinarity, which in itself is not new (Graff 2015), and to involve purpose-driven research targeting identified challenges that will (p.606) have societal impact (Science Europe 2014). This can involve new forms of societal engagement through targeted outreach activities. To consider one illustrative example, “Big Ideas@Berkeley” is a competition launched by UC Berkeley that provides incentives to interdisciplinary teams to provide new solutions to challenges such as food security, water purification, illiteracy, and malaria diagnosis.

At the same time, the convergent approach is not purely about applied science but instead seeks to channel basic science towards real-world applications (Prescott and Verschure 2016; Verschure and Prescott, Chapter 2, this volume). Overall, convergence relies on forming a web of partnerships to support boundary-crossing research and to translate advances into new technologies. A similar goal and ethos underlies the theme of this handbook to bridge between science and engineering, in the areas of biomimetics and biohybrid systems, and to create Living Machine technologies that advance our understanding of the natural world and enhance human life. Living Machines is therefore part of, and an exemplar methodology for, the broader Convergent Science approach.

A survey of education trends in Europe and the United States

Biomimetic and biohybrid systems are emergent multidisciplinary research fields lacking well-defined educational criteria. Given this, there are no official databases that gather information on educational programs directed towards these domains. The current review therefore began from the relatively informal base of discussions with scientists, over the period 2009–2015, participating in scientific and educational activities related to Living Machines research. These discussions took place at events including the Barcelona Cognition, Brain and Technology (BCBT) Summer Schools, the Capo Caccia Cognitive Neuromorphic Engineering Workshops, the Telluride School of Neuromorphic Cognitive Systems, the Padova Neurotechnology School, and the International Conference on Biomimetics and Biohybrid Systems (Living Machines). A further, more systematic, internet search was also performed, between 2012 and 2015, as part of the European Union Convergent Science Network Coordination Action. This investigation specifically targeted postgraduate teaching curricula using the search terms biomimetics, biohybrids, neurotechnology, materials science, computational neuroscience, biorobotics, nanotechnology, and mechatronics. Overall, our survey sought to be representative rather than exhaustive, aiming to capture the thrust of ongoing activities and identify opportunities and trends.

Education programs in Europe

Our investigation of European education identified three substantive Europe-wide integrated education programs, as summarized in Table 64.1, in any otherwise largely fragmented field. These specific programs were:

  1. 1. Joint Master programs supported by Erasmus Mundus (now Erasmus+), a cooperation and mobility program in the field of higher education organized by the European Commission. These two-year Masters courses are joint projects between up to five European universities and in some cases include international universities as well. Some of these programs offer the students the opportunity to plan an individualized program of study by combining elements from courses offered by the participating universities.

  2. 2. Joint PhD programs and postgraduate programs supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) a European program, and part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, that supports researchers at all stages of their careers, irrespective of nationality, to provide them with the necessary skills to become excellent researchers in all disciplines. With this program researchers have the possibility to spend some of their (p.607) training program abroad. MSCA programs have large multidisciplinary consortia (10–15 partners) combining high-level expertise from all over Europe.

  3. 3. Multidisciplinary educational programs led by networks of European universities that attempt to develop more targeted Master and PhD programs in the fields of biomimetic and biohybrid systems with the goal of training the future experts in those fields. An example of these programs is EURON: The European Graduate School of Neuroscience, which has created a broad network of sixteen universities in seven different countries united by shared interest in neuroscience research. EURON offers PhD and Master programs in the field of neuroscience and biomedical sciences. A similar network model for multidisciplinary education is offered by the European Robotics Research Network, a community of more than 230 academic and industrial groups in Europe with a common interest in advanced research and development to make better robots. This network recently merged with a partner industrial network to form the organization EU Robotics.

Table 64.1. Masters and PhD programs supported by Erasmus Mundus + and PhD programs under MSCA programs in Europe in the fields of bio-robotics, mechatronics, biomimetics, and biohybrid systems.

Masters offered by joint programs under Erasmus Mundus

PhDs offered by joint programs under Marie Curie

  • EMM-NANO—Master of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology

  • MEME—Master in Evolutionary Biology

  • EU4M—Masters in Mechatronic and Micro-Mechatronic Systems

  • CEMABUE—Master in Biomedical Engineering.

  • EMMS—Master in Material Sciences

  • EMARO—European Master in Advanced Robotics

  • INTRO—Interactive Robotics research network

  • RobotDoc—The Robotics for Development of Cognition

  • FACETS-ITN—Computing paradigms in biological nervous systems

  • NeuroPhysics—New imaging frontiers

  • DYNANO—Nanosystems for biomedical and biotechnological applications

  • ABC—Multidisciplinary approach on Adaptive Brain Computations

  • NAMASEN—Science and Engineering of Neuronal Networks.

Other European Networks and organizations: EURON The European Graduate School of Neuroscience.

EURON Robotics European Robotics Research Network.

An indicative distribution of the contribution of the different European universities and academic centers to the education of the graduate programs, Masters and PhD, mentioned above is given in Figure 64.3 and shows interest in educational topics related to Living Machines across most European countries.

A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

Figure 64.3 How different European countries contribute to multidisciplinary graduate programs (Masters and PhDs) in the fields of Biomimetics, Biohybrids, Neurotechnology, Materials Science, Computational Neuroscience, BioRobotics, Nanotechnology, and Mechatronics.

A large and widely distributed set of graduate programs is offered in nanotechnology, mechatronics, and materials science, mostly in Germany, France, Italy, UK, and the Netherlands. Some countries such as Italy, UK, Germany, France, Spain, and Switzerland have also placed some emphasis on more specialist graduate programs related to biorobotics and biohybrids, as illustrated in Figure 64.4. The international organization BIOKON, which has its headquarters in Berlin, Germany, is also worth noting in this context as a coalition of scientists and institutions that promote and support the expansion of biomimetics and bio-inspired technologies. BIOKON’s primary goal is to spread information related to biomimetics activities, to facilitate networking of members, and to organize a platform and a worldwide forum for biomimetic scientists and other interested persons; however, they do not directly coordinate education curricula.


A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

Figure 64.4 Estimated number of Masters (MSc) and PhD programs related to biorobotics and biohybrid systems offered in different European countries. Search terms for this survey were biomimetics, biohybrids, and biorobotics. BioR = biorobotics, B&B = biohybrids. At the time of writing, France has the highest number of Masters related to biorobotics (n=7) while Italy offers more PhD programs in this field (n= 5). Germany on the other hand offers the highest number of Masters programs related to biohybrids (n= 3) followed by Sweden offering a few PhDs programs in this field (n= 2).

This survey reveals that in order to create multidisciplinary programs in fields at the convergence of the biological sciences and technology, academic centers from different countries have strategically become members of joint programs organized/sponsored under the umbrella of the European Union. The future of these initiatives is therefore highly dependent on the enthusiasm of this sponsoring body for continued support, which in turn requires that a substantial community of stakeholders in education, commerce, and society continues to promote the cause of convergent research.

Education programs in the US

Many US academic institutions have now started to provide graduate and postgraduate courses in multidisciplinary fields of life sciences, materials science, bioengineering, and biotechnology. Some clear examples of the impact made by the US drive towards convergent multidisciplinary science include: (i) MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, an example of how to incorporate convergence into the infrastructure of science—biologists, engineers, and others in the physical sciences work together in a new building and on the same floors; and (ii) Stanford’s BioX Institute, an interdisciplinary biosciences institute, with the mission to catalyze discovery by crossing the boundaries between disciplines, and to create new knowledge of biological systems that ultimately improve human health.

Our analysis of the US landscape included surveys of the websites Study.com, Robotics Schools and Universities in the U.S., STEM, the U.S. Network for Education Information (USNEI), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Across this sample it was possible to see an emerging emphasis on interdisciplinary programs involving STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Nevertheless, we have found it difficult to identify specific educational offerings relevant to Living Machines and Convergent Science approaches, despite there being strong evidence of a coordinated approach to education in some component fields. For example, in the area of nanotechnology, where support is organized through a national initiative , an interactive map, (p.609) and comprehensive list of Masters and PhD programs, has been developed (see www.nano.gov). We conclude that some of the relevant activity may be at a level of granularity of courses within institutes that is difficult to detect by a broad-brush survey. An example of a specific initiative that we have become aware of, and that is strongly-related to both biomimetics and the Convergent Science approach, is a course on Bioinspired Design1 offered by the Department of Integrative Biology at University of California, Berkeley (see also Full et al. 2015). This course, which is (p.610) offered to students from science, engineering, arts, medicine and business as a single semester option, covers the biomimetic design process, exemplar case studies, and team projects in biomimetic robotics. Other notable ingredients include an emphasis on critical thinking and inquiry-based learning and on knowledge-transfer as exemplified by training in ‘bioentrepreneurship’.

To assess the broader extent of activity in the US in areas related to Living Machines we examined a second area of relevant research—robotics—an interdisciplinary field that combines study of mechanical engineering and computers, where many programs do include a theme related to biomimetics. Figure 64.5 plots the number of Masters and/or PhD programs per US state offered in the area of robotics that had some additional match with our keywords biomimetics, biohybrids, and biorobotics. This picture indicates emerging activity on both the East and West coast with the Boston area (Massachusetts) a significant hot-spot.

A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

Figure 64.5 US robotics Masters (MSc) and PhD programs that have embraced a more biomimetic approach and the states in which they are offered. Overall, 10 US states offer a total of 11 Masters programs and 18 PhD programs, with Massachusetts leading with the highest number of Masters (n = 3) and PhD programs in the field (n = 5). These universities are also very active in ground-breaking research as well as education and outreach activities.

A tentative conclusion is that both European and US landscapes are fertile ground for integrative approaches in postgraduate education that combine science and engineering, Europe, through funding structures that allow consortia of universities to pursue educational initiatives at Masters and PhD level, also has the potential to support transnational educational opportunities in areas of Convergent Science such as biomimetic and biohybrid systems.

Strategies to structure international educational opportunities in biomimetics and biohybrid systems

Whilst a move toward education programs that embrace a Convergent Science approach is evident in both Europe and the US, there are, as yet, few curricula that specifically reflect the (p.611) principles and themes of Living Machines research. A first step in addressing this challenge is to define what an international Masters program could look like.

Building on the more generic set of topics presented earlier, Figure 64.6 outlines one possible program, potentially a two-year taught Masters, with specific focus toward neuroscience and neurotechnology.

Note that several elements of the proposed curricula can be found in many universities—physiology, psychology, AI, and so on; however, others are newer and more interdisciplinary in nature. For example, we have highlighted here the embodiment of neuromimetic controllers in hardware (neuromorphics), the design of biomimetic control architectures for complex artifacts such as robots (neurorobotics), and the field of brain–machine interfaces. These are all important domains for translating understanding in neuroscience towards real-world applications. It is possible to anticipate a program that is split between courses taken at a home institution and a period spent visiting a leading center for these forms of interdisciplinary research for more specialist training.

A sketch of the education landscape in biomimetic and biohybrid systems

Figure 64.6 Design of a multidisciplinary curriculum for Masters education in the area of biomimetics and biohybrid systems with particularly emphasis on neuroscience and neurotechnology.

To encourage the growth of this kind of education program and to foster a broader environment for education in areas of Convergent Science, the following strategic goals could be pursued:

  • Lobby national and international bodies to recognize the value and importance to society of the translation of biological principles into technology both as a path to further scientific understanding and to create novel solutions to societal needs.

  • (p.612) Direct national initiatives and education funding to encourage the expansion of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary programs in life sciences, technology, and industry. This strategy, which is already evident in some countries, could be further advanced through international initiatives and collaboration.

  • Create an international network of educational institutions interested in promoting Convergent Science approaches and enhance synergies by sharing knowledge and resources including program designs, educational software and modeling tools, design templates (e.g. for 3D printed systems), and biomimetic control/teaching software for common research platforms.

  • Facilitate the development of cross-institution degrees, including trans-national qualifications, where training can be obtained in two or more contributing institutions.

  • Provide support for dedicated programs such as summer schools, workshops, internships, or online teaching for Masters and PhD students in areas of research related to biomimetic and biohybrid systems.

  • Develop pre- and postgraduate programs of education and research, such as internships and fellowships, that emphasize discipline-hopping between the life sciences and engineering and vice versa.

  • Foster links between universities, public bodies, charities, foundations, businesses, and citizen organizations that can identify challenges where a Living Machines approach can provide a breakthrough. Create opportunities for interactions between students, research leaders, and these other stakeholders to come together to develop solutions to real-world challenges.


The surveys and research described in this chapter were sponsored by the European Union 7th Framework through the Future Emerging Technologies (FET) programe and Coordination Actions “Convergent Science Network for Biomimetics and Biohybrid Systems (CSNI)” (ICT-248986) and “Convergent Science Network of Biomimetics and Neurotechnology (CSNII)” (ICT-601167). We are grateful to Paul Verschure for his enormous contribution in developing the ideas presented here and to the many speakers and participants in CSN events and conferences who have helped to craft and inspire the Living Machines approach.


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(1) SPECS, Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST), Spain

(2) Sheffield Robotics and Department of Computer Science, University of Sheffield, UK