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. They evolved together and work seamlessly together.

Multicellular Organisms Implications for Computing
Specialization supersedes general behavior
Biofilms, are cooperative groups of single-cell organisms that specialize temporarily according to "quorum" cues from neighbors. In contrast, cells in true multicellular organisms specialize (differentiate) permanently during development of the organism. Many computers, especially PCs, retain a large repertoire of unused general behavior susceptible to malware attack. Specialization is common, however, in embedded machines, cell phones, PDAs, etc. Biology suggests that specialization in computing will become increasingly common
Communication relies on messages
Cells in multicellular organisms communicate with each other via messenger molecules, never via 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 typical stigmergy structures in 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 by programmed cell death (PCD) or apoptosis
All healthy Metazoan cells are prepared to commit suicide - a process called apoptosis. 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.

Last revised 3/28/2015