In nature, biological systems gradually evolve through complex, algorithmic processes involving mutation and differential selection. Evolution has optimized biological macromolecules for a variety of functions to provide a comparative advantage. However, nature does not optimize molecules for use in human-made devices, as it would gain no survival advantage in such cooperation. Recent advancements in genetic engineering, most notably directed evolution, have allowed for the stepwise manipulation of the properties of living organisms, promoting the expansion of protein-based devices in nanotechnology. In this review, we highlight the use of directed evolution to optimize photoactive proteins, with an emphasis on bacteriorhodopsin (BR), for device applications. BR, a highly stable light-activated proton pump, has shown great promise in three-dimensional optical memories, real-time holographic processors and artificial retinas.