Warning Signs from the Future

future-signs-02From bioenhancements becoming the norm, to people constantly wired into augmented reality; from synthetic organs to synthetic meat; driverless taxis to holograms and robot helpers – the future is likely to be an interesting-looking place. That’s the subject in a new Tumblr called Signs from the Near Future, where designer Fernando Barbella explores what signage will look like when we have to absorb all of these innovations into human culture.

Taking its cue from what eager startups and scientists predict, Barbella’s collection of photos looks a few decades into the future where dramatic, sci-fi inspired innovations have become everyday things. These include things like drones becoming a regular thing, driverless taxis (aka. robotaxis) and synthetic meat becoming available, high-tech classrooms servicing the post-humans amongst us, and enhancements and implants becoming so common they need to be regulated and monitored.

future-signs-01Barbella says that the project was inspired by articles he’s read on topics like nanomedicine, autonomous cars, and 3-D food printing, as well as classic books (Neuromancer, Fahrenheit 51), movies (Blade Runner, Gattaca), music (Rage Against The Machine), and TV shows (Fringe, Black Mirror). The designer chose to focus on signs because he figures that we’ll need a little guidance to speed up our learning curves with new technology. As he put it during an interview via email:

New materials, mashups between living organisms and nanotechnologies, improved capabilities for formerly ‘dumb’ and inanimate things . . . There’s lots of awesome things going on around us! And the fact is all these things are going to cease being just ‘projects’ to became part of our reality at any time soon. On the other hand, I chose to express these thing by signs deployed in ordinary places, featuring instructions and warnings because I feel that as we increasingly depend on technology, we will probably have less space for individual judgment to make decisions.

future-signs-07Some of the signs – including one thanking drivers for choosing to ride on a solar panel highway – can be traced back to specific news articles or announcements. The solar highway sign was inspired by a solar roadways crowdfunding campaign, which has so far raised over $2 million to build solar road panels. However, rather than focus on the buzz and how cool and modern such a development would be, Barbella chose to focus on what such a thing would look like.

At the same time, he wanted the pictures to serve as a sort of cautionary tale about the ups and down of the future. As he put it:

I feel that as we increasingly depend on technology, we will probably have less space for individual judgment to make decisions. …I’ve sticked to a more ‘mundane’ point of view, imagining that the people or authorities of any given county would be probably quite grateful for having the chance of transforming all that traffic into energy.

future-signs-03He says he wants his signs to not just depict that momentum and progress, but to reflect the potentially disturbing aspects of those advances as well. Beyond that, Barbella sees an interesting dynamic in the public’s push and pull against what new technology allows us to do. Though the technology grants people access to information and other cultures, it also poses issues of privacy and ethics that hold that back. As a result, privacy concerns are thus featured in the collection in a number of ways.

This includes warning people about “oversharing” via social media, how images snapped using contact display lenses will be shared in real-time with authorities, or how certain neighorhoods are drone patrolled. His images offer a look at why those issues are certain to keep coming — and at the same time, why many will ultimately fall aside. Barbella also stated that has more future signs in the queue, but he says that he’ll stop the moment they start to feel forced.

future-signs-05You have to admit, it does capture the sense of awe and wonder – not to mention fear and anxiety – of what our likely future promises. And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousands words”. In this case, those words present a future that has one foot in the fantastical and another in the fearful, but in such a way that it seems entirely frank and straighforward. But that does seem to be the way the future works, doesn’t it? Somehow, it doesn’t seem like science fiction once it becomes a regular part of “mundane” reality.

To see more of his photos, head on over to his Tumblr account.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, theverge.com

Glowing Plants and the Future of Gene Patenting

DNA-1Synthetic biology – also known as biohacking – is an emerging and controversial scientific field that uses gene-writing software to compile DNA sequences. And thanks to a recent ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court, it is a process which is now entirely legal. All told, the potential applications of synthetic biology are largely useful, leading to lifesaving cures, or altered crops that survive in any environment.

However, there are numerous potential (and potentially harmful) commercial applications that could emerge from this as well. One such advancement comes from a DIY synthetic biology lab known as Glowing Plant, one that specializes in synthetic bio hacking. Basically, the project was one of many that emerged out of Singularity University – a research institute dedicated future technologies today.

glowing_plantsGlowing Plant was  originally created to show the power of DIY synthetic biology, and has since sets its sights on developing a species of glowing house plant for consumers. To fund their goal, they opened up a Kickstarter campaign – the first of its kind – with the goal of $65,000. Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promised backers that they would receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home.

glowing_plants2Glowing Plant also announced that if the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available. As of the publication of this article, they passed that goal with a whopping $484,013 from a total of 8,433 backers. It seems there are no shortage of people out there who want to get their hands on a glowing house plant.

But Glowing Plant, the laboratory behind the project, has no intention of stopping there. As Antony Evans, co-founder of the project explained:

We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects. People are fundamentally excited and enthusiastic about synthetic biology.

Given the thousands of people backing the project, I’d say he’s right! But rest assured, Evans and his team have no intention of stopping there. The ultimate goal is to create larger species of glowing plants.

glowing_plants1The method used to achieve this is really quite interesting. It starts with the team downloading the luciferase-lucifern genes – the firefly DNA that allows them to glow – into a Genome Compiler, and then rewiring the DNA so that the proteins can be read by plants. The DNA sequences are then sent off to DNA printing company Cambrian Genomics, which has developed a relatively low-cost laser printing system. Those sequences are printed, put on a little spot of paper, and mailed back to the team.

After that, the team relies on one of two methods to transmit the firefly DNA into the Arabidopsis’ themselves. One way is to use a bacteria solution that is capable of injecting its own DNA into plants and rewriting theirs, which then causes the altered plants to germinate seeds of the new glowing strain. The other involves gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct that are then fired at the plant cells, which are then absorbed into the plant chromosomes and alters their DNA.

NanoparticlesThis second method was devised to do an end run around specific Department of Agriculture regulations that govern the use of viruses or other pathogens to modify DNA. Though technically legal, the process has attracted resistance from environmental groups and the scientific community, fearing that the DNA of these altered plants will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences.

In fact, an anti-synthetic biology group called ECT has emerged in response to this and other such projects – and is centered in my old hometown of Ottawa! They have countered Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter campaign (which is now closed) with a fundraising drive of their own, entitled “Kickstopper”. In addition, the group has started a campaign on Avaaz.org to force the Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling that allows this sort of bioengineering to take place.

At present, their fundraising campaign has raised a total of  $1,701 from 58 backers – rougly 9% of its overall goal of $20,000 – and their Avaaz campaign has collected some 13,000 signatures. With 36 days left, there is no telling if they’re efforts will succeed in forcing a legal injunction on Glowing Plant, or if this is the first of many synthetic biology products that will make it to the market through private research and crowdfunding.

A fascinating time we live in, and potentially frightening…

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2), kickstarter.com, glowingplant.com

The Future of Cities and Urban Planning

future-city-1With the development of vertical farms, carbon capture technology, clean energy and arcologies, the future of city life and urban planning is likely to be much different than it does today. Using current trends, there are a number of people who are determined to gain some understanding of what that might look like. One such group is Arup, a design and engineering firm that produced a mockup that visualizes what urban environments will look like in 2050.

Based on the world as it is today, certain facts about the future seem relatively certain. For starters, three-quarters of the population will live in cities, or 6.75 billion of the projected 9 billion global total. In addition, everyone will have grown up with the Internet, and its successors, and city residents will have access to less natural resources than they do today, making regeneration and efficiency more of a priority.

Add to this several emerging technologies, and our urban environments are likely to look something like the building mockup below. As you can see, it has its own energy systems (“micro-wind,” “solar PV paint,” and “algae facade” for producing biofuels). There is an integrated layer for meat, poultry, fish, and vegetable farming, a “building membrane” that converts CO2 to oxygen, heat recovery surfaces, materials that phase change and repair themselves, integration with the rest of the city, and much more.

future_urban_planning

Most futuristic of all is the fact that the structure is completely modular and designed to be shifted about (by robots, of course). The building has three layer types, with different life-spans. At the bottom is a permanent layer – with a 10 to 20-year lifespan – which includes the “facade and primary fit-out walls, finishes, or on-floor mechanical plant” – and a third layer that can incorporate rapid changes, such as new IT equipment.

As Arup’s Josef Hargrave described the building when unveiling the design:

[A]ble to make informed and calculated decisions based on their surrounding environment… [a] living and breathing [structure] able to support the cities and people of tomorrow.

In short, the building is designed with personal needs in mind, based on information gleamed from a person’s behaviors, stated preferences, and even genetic information.

aircleaning_skyscraper3But what is even more interesting is how these buildings will be constructed. As countless developments are made in the field of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology, both the materials used and the processes involved are likely to be radically different. The rigid construction that we are used to is likely to give way to buildings which are far more flexible, adaptive, and – best of all – built by robots, drones, tiny machines and bacteria cultures.

Once again, this change is due mainly to the pressures that are being placed on urban environments, and not just technological advances. As our world becomes even more densely populated, greater proportions of people live in urban environments, and resources become more constrained, the way we build our cities must offer optimum efficiency with minimal impact.

nanomachineryTowards this end, innovations in additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions.

What this means is that cities could be grown, or assembled at the atomic level, forming buildings that are either living creatures themselves, or composed of self-replicated machines that can adapt and change as needed. Might sound like science fiction, but countless firms and labs are working towards this very thing every day.

It has already been demonstrated that single cells are capable of being programmed to carry out computational operations, and that DNA strains are capable of being arranged to carry out specialized functions. Given the rapid progress in the field of biotech and biomimetics (technology that imitates biology), a future where the built environment imitates organic life seems just around the corner.

biofabrication For example, at Harvard there is a biotech research outfit known as Robobees that is working on a concept known as “programming group dynamics”. Like corals, beehives, and termite colonies, there’s a scalar effect gained from coordinating large numbers of simple agents to perform complex goals. Towards this end, Robobees has been working towards the creation of robotic insects that exhibit the swarming behaviors of bees.

Mike Rubenstein leads another Harvard lab, known as Kilobot, which is dedicated to creating a “low cost scalable robot system for demonstrating collective behaviors.” His lab, along with the work of researcher’s like Nancy Lynch at MIT, are laying the frameworks for asynchronous distributed networks and multi-agent coordination, aka swarm robotics, that would also be capable of erecting large structures thanks to centralized, hive-mind programming.

nanorobot1

In addition to MIT, Caltech, and various academic research departments, there are also scores of private firms and DIY labs looking to make things happen. For example, the companies Autodesk Research and Organovo recently announced a partnership where they will be combining their resources – modelling the microscopic organic world and building bioprinters – to begin biofabricating everything from drugs to nanomachines.

And then there are outfits like the Columbia Living Architecture Lab, a group that explores ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing, the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.

ESA_moonbaseAnd let’s not forget 3D printing, a possibility which is being explored by NASA and the European Space Agency as the means to create a settlement on the Moon. In the case of the ESA, they have partnered with roboticist Enrico Dini, who created a 3-D printer large enough to print houses from sand. Using his concept, the ESA hopes to do the same thing using regolith – aka. moon dust – to build structures on Earth’s only satellite.

All of these projects are brewing in university and corporate labs, but it’s likely that there are far more of them sprouting in DIY labs and skunkworks all across the globe. And in the end, each of them is dedicated to the efficiency of natural systems, and their realization through biomimetic technology. And given that the future is likely to be characterized by resources shortages, environmental degradation and the need for security, it is likely to assume that all of these areas of study are likely to produce some very interesting scenarios.

As I’ve said many times before, the future is likely to be a very interesting place, thanks to the convergence of both Climate Change and technological change. With so many advances promising a future of post-scarcity, post-mortality, a means of production and a level of control over our environment which is nothing short of mind-boggling – and a history of environmental degradation and resource depletion that promises shortages, scarcity, and some frightening prospects – our living spaces are likely to change drastically.

The 21st century is going to be a very interesting time, people. Let’s just hope we make it out alive!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2)