If scientific developments kept pace with science fiction imagineers we’d be living in a world of intergalactic space travel, teleportation and hover boards. Sadly, these haven’t yet materialised, but imagining future uses for research can avoid funding wastage and reduce ethical backlashes. In a panel discussion at the recent science festival FutureFest in Shoreditch Town Hall, Eric Drexler, Daisy Ginsberg and others examined the potentially big consequences of two technologies that operate at the very tiny level: nanotechnology and synthetic biology.
Drexler has been a strong advocate of nanotechnology since the 1970s and coined the phrase ‘grey goo’ in 1986 to describe what might happen if self-replicating nanobots get out of control. In his new book Radical Abundance he talks about how Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM) could output any desired object from atom-sized inputs. “Think of a 3D printer: Digital data and materials go in and after some things move around a bit, out comes the three dimensional object,”
He continues: “What would you find in a ‘factory in a box’ of APM? The physics tells us that the mechanical processes of putting things together using APM can work all the way down to the nano scale where the inputs are just small molecules of common materials that are put together in mechanically guided ways, the products are joined to make larger blocks, then larger blocks, then components”
So using typical mechanical machinery plus APM, the ‘factory in a box’ could produce almost anything. For more details pick up a copy, but books like Drexler’s aren’t the only way to glimpse at future research. Also on the FutureFest panel discussion was Daisy Ginsberg who is a design fellow on Synthetic Aesthetics, a project at Stanford University and the University of Edinburgh that explores collaborations between art and design, and the new field of synthetic biology. She explained how design can be a helpful tool for considering practical research outcomes: “What I’m trying to do is see whether we can consider design very early in the development of a technology and so shape it.”
One example of her work is the E. Chromi project, which took synthetic biology research on E.coli as a starting point. In 2009, a group from Cambridge University ‘programmed’ the bacteria to release different coloured pigments in response to certain stimulants. For instance, the bacteria might turn themselves red if they came into contact with a toxin. Ginsberg and colleague James King imagined where these findings might lead and one medical application was to have yoghurt containing specially modified bacteria that would colour a patient’s stool if harmful toxins were present in their gut. The pair explained the project at an interactive session called ‘Pink My Poop’, which got interest and a reaction from the public: “Everyone can understand the idea that a yogurt could colour your poo,” Ginsberg said. “It’s direct and visceral and an effective tool for communicating these questions.”
She also designed the ‘Synthetic Kingdom’ illustration (pictured) that attempts to identify the place synthetic biology might begin to hold in the animal kingdom. The illustration was chosen by Imperial College to go on the cover of the first ever synthetic biology textbook. One of the reasons Ginsberg feels the illustration became popular was that it forces the viewer to ask themselves where the field of synthetic biology belongs: “Does the picture validate synthetic biology by giving it a kingdom, or is it challenging the way we think about how designed and natural products sit together?” She asks. “If anyone starts talking about that sort of question when they wouldn’t normally, I think that’s a great thing.
“What I like to do through my design practice is to find ways to identify issues that don’t come out nearly as clearly in a science or ethics paper, and may not be as accessible. The Synthetic Kingdom makes the issue really ‘in your face’ so it’s used as a tool for discussion. It’s not about it being pretty.”
Another participant in the FutureFest discussion was Sonya Trigueros, a Nanoscience and Nanobiology researcher at Oxford Martins School. Her argument was that designing the future of technology is hard when there’s no evidence that the ideas being proposed will actually work in practice. “I have projects in my lab that I have to stop working on because they are impossible, and I didn’t know when I started doing them,” she said. “So one thing is the potential, the other thing is the reality. We work with unknowns, we do experiments and we give an answer. This is science.”
Clearly, designing future products based on unproven research is wasted breath, but there is a growing sense that conversations involving the general public are a useful part of working out which lines of scientific research should be pursued. Both Drexler’s books and Ginsberg’s designs can help to provoke public discourse because they take the discussion out of laboratory and into the investor network, or even the shopping centre. “Design is a really interesting language to use,” explains Ginsberg. “The projects that I make are about consumer products. They speculate on how a technology might appear down the line and are meant to investigate, not predict. It’s the language of consumer objects that we all understand and that’s why design is a really powerful tool for actually talking about these things.”
IMAGE: The Synthetic Kingdom, Daisy Ginsberg