Four Architectural Principles for Multicellular Systems

Computing recapitulates the evolution from single-cell to multicellular life. At least four lessons can be learned from biological evolution.

Multicellular life exploits four architectural strategies that are also emerging in multicellular computing. These strategies are rare in single cell organisms yet are universal in multicellular organisms. And they evolved together and work seamlessly together.

In Multicellular Organisms Implications for Computing
supersedes general behavior

Cells in biofilms, which are cooperative groups of single-cell organisms, specialize temporarily according to "quorum" cues from neighbors.

Cells in "true" multicellular organisms specialize (differentiate) permanently during development of the organism.

Today all too many computers, especially PCs, retain a large repertoire of unused general behavior susceptible to viral or worm attack. Specialization is common, however, in embedded machines, cell phones, PDAs, etc.

Biology suggests that specialization in computing will become increasingly common
Communication by polymorphic messages Metazoan, i.e., multicellular cells communicate with each other via messenger molecules, never DNA.  The "meaning" of cell-to-cell messages is determined by the receiving cell, not the sender Executable code is the analog of DNA. Most PCs permit download of executable code (Active-X, java, or even .exe)

Biology suggests this should be taboo. The meaning of messages must be determined by the receiver.
An organisms identity, or "self" is defined by a stigmergy structure
Metazoans and biofilms build extracellular stigmergy structures (connective tissue, bone, shell, or just a jelly-like matrix) which define the persistent self

"Selfness" resides as much in the extracellular stigmergy structure as in the cells.
Intranets and databases are stigmergy structures in the world of multicellular computing, as are many Web phenomena such as search engines, folksonomy sites, wikis and blogs.

Determination of "self" is largely ad hoc in today's systems.  It needs to be more systematic.
"Self" is protected and sculpted collectively by programmed cell death (PCD) or apoptosis
Every healthy Metazoan cell is prepared to commit suicide -- a process called apoptosis or Programmed Cell Death. Apoptosis reflects a multicellular perspective, sacrificing the individual cell for the good of the multicellular organism.

Apoptosis evolved to deal with DNA replication errors, viral infection, and rogue undifferentiated cells. Yet the organism also uses it to sculpt its shape as it develops.

Examples of apoptosis in computing include shutting off errant CPUs in fault-tolerant systems, and the Blue Screen of Death in Windows -- a programmed response to an unrecoverable error.

A civilized computer in a multicellular computing world should sense its own rogue behavior, e.g., a viral or worm infection, and disconnect itself from the network.

Contact: sburbeck at
Last revised 6/10/2012