It's very similar to how our immune system operates through a kind of "swarm intelligence", where individual cells aren't that smart, but collectively they constitute an extremely adaptable system. For example, your immune system learns to identify and combat an invader without central coordination – instead, individual elements try a variety of strategies, and whatever works is eventually copied across your entire immune response.
In one example of swarm intelligence solving a thorny problem, Mita’s team figured out how to program a building’s ambient music to shape the mood of its human occupants. The system has pre-set goals – in this case, keeping people productive during the day – and accomplishes them by experimentally adjusting both the familiarity and the tempo of the music piped through a building. By integrating observations of all the humans present, the system used a relatively unsophisticated but “swarm intelligent” algorithm to increase productivity by 69% versus a no-music control.
Another characteristic of living things that Mita is copying is a concept called "homeostasis," which is just a fancy word for the fact that organisms are good at maintaining their state of being, even in the face of things that would perturb them, like an injury or a change in temperature. (A conventional thermostat is actually a primitive homeostatic system, in that it reacts to changes in temperature by trying to bring the house back to a particular set-point, regardless of the source of the disturbance.)
For example, rather than simply being programmed with simple instructions like "if a person walks into a room, turn the light on", Mita's "e-bio" sensors might learn how much light a user likes. Equipped with their own light sensors, they can adjust ambient light levels to fit a user's demonstrated preferences. This way, the system automatically takes into account time of day, clouds, even whether or not the blinds are drawn, all without actually knowing the state of any of those variables. (This sort of thing makes even more sense with next-generation LED lighting systems, which are dimmable and can be formed into almost any shape, not just that of a lightbulb.)
Reaching Mita's goals for really advanced living buildings may require something of a handover of the world of architecture, from designers to engineers. "I think the most interesting thing is that this research theme has been very hard to handle in previous architectural faculties," says Mita. "For example, the researchers need to know about sensors, and to know a lot about information processing as well."
In re-thinking buildings as responsive structures, Mita doesn't place any limits on how much he thinks we can borrow from biology. "Ultimately, it would be good if buildings themselves could make their own DNA and build the next building. But that's a really difficult subject, so all of us, including the students, are having fun working towards it step by step."