Effects of Abstraction on Selecting Relevant Biological Phenomena for Biomimetic Design

Tao Feng, Hyunmin Cheong, L. H. Shu

Journal of Mechanical Design
2014

Abstract

The natural-language approach to identifying biological analogies exploits the existing format of much biological knowledge, beyond databases created for biomimetic design. However, designers may need to select analogies from search results, during which biases may exist toward: specific words in descriptions of biological phenomena, familiar organisms and scales, and strategies that match preconceived solutions. Therefore, we conducted two experiments to study the effect of abstraction on overcoming these biases and selecting biological phenomena based on analogical similarities. Abstraction in our experiments involved replacing biological nouns with hypernyms. The first experiment asked novice designers to choose between a phenomenon suggesting a highly useful strategy for solving a given problem, and another suggesting a less-useful strategy, but featuring bias elements. The second experiment asked novice designers to evaluate the relevance of two biological phenomena that suggest similarly useful strategies to solve a given problem. Neither experiment demonstrated the anticipated benefits of abstraction. Instead, our abstraction led to: (1) participants associating nonabstracted words to design problems and (2) increased difficulty in understanding descriptions of biological phenomena. We recommend investigating other ways to implement abstraction when developing similar tools or techniques that aim to support biomimetic design.

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