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← Smelfies, and other experiments in synthetic biology

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Showing Revision 5 created 02/27/2017 by Brian Greene.

  1. What if our plants
  2. could sense the toxicity
    levels in the soil
  3. and express that toxicity
    through the color of its leaves?
  4. What if those plants could also
    remove those toxins from the soil?
  5. Instead, what if those plants
  6. grew their own packaging,
  7. or were designed to only be harvested
  8. by their owners' own patented machines?
  9. What happens when biological design
  10. is driven by the motivations
    of mass-produced commodities?
  11. What kind of world would that be?
  12. My name is Ani, and I'm a designer
    and researcher at MIT Media Lab,

  13. where I'm part of a relatively new
    and unique group called Design Fiction,
  14. where we're wedged somewhere
    between science fiction and science fact.
  15. And at MIT, I am lucky enough
    to rub shoulders with scientists
  16. studying all kinds of cutting edge fields
  17. like synthetic neurobiology,
  18. artificial intelligence, artificial life
  19. and everything in between.
  20. And across campus,
    there's truly brilliant scientists
  21. asking questions like,
    "How can I make the world a better place?"
  22. And part of what my group
    likes to ask is, "What is better?"
  23. What is better for you, for me,
  24. for a white woman, a gay man,
  25. a veteran, a child with a prosthetic?
  26. Technology is never neutral.
  27. It frames a reality
  28. and reflects a context.
  29. Can you imagine what it would say
    about the work-life balance at your office
  30. if these were standard issue
    on the first day?
  31. (Laughter)

  32. I believe it's the role
    of artists and designers

  33. to raise critical questions.
  34. Art is how you can see
    and feel the future,
  35. and today is an exciting
    time to be a designer,
  36. for all the new tools becoming accessible.
  37. For instance, synthetic biology
  38. seeks to write biology
    as a design problem.
  39. And through these developments,
  40. my lab asks, what are the roles
    and responsibilities
  41. of an artist, designer,
    scientist or businessman?
  42. What are the implications
  43. of synthetic biology, genetic engineering,
  44. and how are they shaping our notions
    of what it means to be a human?
  45. What are the implications of this
    on society, on evolution
  46. and what are the stakes in this game?
  47. My own speculative design research
    at the current moment

  48. plays with synthetic biology,
  49. but for more emotionally driven output.
  50. I'm obsessed with olfaction
    as a design space,
  51. and this project started with this idea
  52. of what if you could take
    a smell selfie, a smelfie?
  53. (Laughter)

  54. What if you could take
    your own natural body odor

  55. and send it to a lover?
  56. Funny enough, I found that this
    was a 19th century Austrian tradition,
  57. where couples in courtship
    would keep a slice of apple
  58. crammed under their armpit during dances,
  59. and at the end of the evening,
  60. the girl would give the guy
    she most fancied her used fruit,
  61. and if the feeling was mutual,
  62. he would wolf down that stinky apple.
  63. (Laughter)

  64. Famously, Napoleon wrote
    many love letters to Josephine,

  65. but perhaps amongst the most memorable
    is this brief and urgent note:
  66. "Home in three days. Don't bathe."
  67. (Laughter)

  68. Both Napoleon and Josephine
    adored violets.

  69. Josephine wore violet-scented perfume,
  70. carried violets on their wedding day,
  71. and Napoleon sent her a bouquet of violets
  72. every year on their anniversary.
  73. When Josephine passed away,
  74. he planted violets at her grave,
  75. and just before his exile,
  76. he went back to that tomb site,
  77. picked some of those flowers,
    entombed them in a locket
  78. and wore them until the day he died.
  79. And I found this so moving,

  80. I thought, could I engineer that violet
    to smell just like Josephine?
  81. What if, for the rest of eternity,
  82. when you went to visit her site,
  83. you could smell Josephine
    just as Napoleon loved her?
  84. Could we engineer new ways of mourning,
  85. new rituals for remembering?
  86. After all, we've engineered
    transgenic crops
  87. to be maximized for profit,
  88. crops that stand up to transport,
  89. crops that have a long shelf life,
  90. crops that taste sugary sweet
    but resist pests,
  91. sometimes at the expense
    of nutritional value.
  92. Can we harness these same technologies
    for an emotionally sensitive output?
  93. So currently in my lab,

  94. I'm researching questions like,
    what makes a human smell like a human?
  95. And it turns out it's fairly complicated.
  96. Factors such as your diet,
    your medications, your lifestyle
  97. all factor into the way you smell.
  98. And I found that our sweat
    is mostly odorless,
  99. but it's our bacteria and microbiome
  100. that's responsible for your smells,
    your mood, your identity
  101. and so much beyond.
  102. And there's all kinds
    of molecules that you emit
  103. but which we only perceive subconsciously.
  104. So I've been cataloging and collecting

  105. bacteria from different sites of my body.
  106. After talking to a scientist, we thought,
  107. maybe the perfect concoction of Ani
  108. is like 10 percent collarbone,
    30 percent underarm,
  109. 40 percent bikini line and so forth,
  110. and occasionally
    I let researchers from other labs
  111. take a sniff of my samples.
  112. And it's been interesting to hear
    how smell of the body
  113. is perceived outside
    of the context of the body.
  114. I've gotten feedback such as,
  115. smells like flowers, like chicken,
  116. like cornflakes,
  117. like beef carnitas.
  118. (Laughter)

  119. At the same time, I cultivate
    a set of carnivorous plants

  120. for their ability to emit
    fleshlike odors to attract prey,
  121. in an attempt to kind of create
    this symbiotic relationship
  122. between my bacteria and this organism.
  123. And as it so happens,
    I'm at MIT and I'm in a bar,
  124. and I was talking to a scientist
  125. who happens to be a chemist
    and a plant scientist,
  126. and I was telling him about my project,
  127. and he was like, "Well, this sounds
    like botany for lonely women."
  128. (Laughter)

  129. Unperturbed, I said, "OK."

  130. I challenged him.
  131. "Can we engineer a plant
    that can love me back?"
  132. And for some reason,
    he was like, "Sure, why not?"
  133. So we started with,
    can we get a plant to grow towards me

  134. like I was the sun?
  135. And so we're looking at mechanisms
    in plants such as phototropism,
  136. which causes the plant
    to grow towards the sun
  137. by producing hormones like auxin,
  138. which causes cell elongation
    on the shady side.
  139. And right now I'm creating
    a set of lipsticks
  140. that are infused with these chemicals
  141. that allow me to interact with a plant
    on its own chemical signatures --
  142. lipsticks that cause plants
    to grow where I kiss it,
  143. plants that blossom
    where I kiss the bloom.
  144. And through these projects,

  145. I'm asking questions like,
  146. how do we define nature?
  147. How do we define nature
    when we can reengineer its properties,
  148. and when should we do it?
  149. Should we do it for profit, for utility?
  150. Can we do it for emotional ends?
  151. Can biotechnology be used
    to create work as moving as music?
  152. What are the thresholds between science
  153. and its ability to shape
    our emotional landscape?
  154. It's a famous design mantra
    that form follows function.

  155. Well, now, wedged somewhere
    between science, design and art
  156. I get to ask,
  157. what if fiction informs fact?
  158. What kind of R&D lab would that look like
  159. and what kind of questions
    would we ask together?
  160. We often look to technology as the answer,

  161. but as an artist and designer,
  162. I like to ask, but what is the question?
  163. Thank you.

  164. (Applause)