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Synthetic biology for the senses| Ani Liu | TEDxBeaconStreet

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    What if our plants
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    could sense the toxicity
    levels in the soil
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    and express that toxicity
    through the color of its leaves?
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    What if those plants could also
    remove those toxins from the soil?
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    Instead, what if those plants
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    grew their own packaging,
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    or were designed to only be harvested
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    by their owners' own patented machines?
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    What happens when biological design
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    is driven by the motivations
    of mass-produced commodities?
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    What kind of world would that be?
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    My name is Ani, and I'm a designer
    and researcher at MIT Media Lab,
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    where I'm part of a relatively new
    and unique group called Design Fiction,
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    where we're wedged somewhere
    between science fiction and science fact.
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    And at MIT, I am lucky enough
    to rub shoulders with scientists
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    studying all kinds of cutting edge fields
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    like synthetic neurobiology,
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    artificial intelligence, artificial life
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    and everything in between.
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    And across campus,
    there's truly brilliant scientists
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    asking questions like,
    "How can I make the world a better place?"
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    And part of what my group
    likes to ask is, "What is better?"
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    What is better for you, for me,
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    for a white woman, a gay man,
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    a veteran, a child with a prosthetic?
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    Technology is never neutral.
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    It frames a reality
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    and reflects a context.
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    Can you imagine what it would say
    about the work-life balance at your office
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    if these were standard issue
    on the first day?
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    (Laughter)
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    I believe it's the role
    of artists and designers
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    to raise critical questions.
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    Art is how you can see
    and feel the future,
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    and today is an exciting
    time to be a designer,
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    for all the new tools becoming accessible.
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    For instance, synthetic biology
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    seeks to write biology
    as a design problem.
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    And through these developments,
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    my lab asks, what are the roles
    and responsibilities
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    of an artist, designer,
    scientist or businessman?
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    What are the implications
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    of synthetic biology, genetic engineering,
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    and how are they shaping our notions
    of what it means to be a human?
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    What are the implications of this
    on society, on evolution
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    and what are the stakes in this game?
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    My own speculative design research
    at the current moment
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    plays with synthetic biology,
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    but for more emotionally driven output.
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    I'm obsessed with olfaction
    as a design space,
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    and this project started with this idea
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    of what if you could take
    a smell selfie, a smelfie?
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    (Laughter)
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    What if you could take
    your own natural body odor
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    and send it to a lover?
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    Funny enough, I found that this
    was a 19th century Austrian tradition,
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    where couples in courtship
    would keep a slice of apple
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    crammed under their armpit during dances,
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    and at the end of the evening,
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    the girl would give the guy
    she most fancied her used fruit,
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    and if the feeling was mutual,
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    he would wolf down that stinky apple.
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    (Laughter)
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    Famously, Napoleon wrote
    many love letters to Josephine,
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    but perhaps amongst the most memorable
    is this brief and urgent note:
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    "Home in three days. Don't bathe."
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    (Laughter)
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    Both Napoleon and Josephine
    adored violets.
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    Josephine wore violet-scented perfume,
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    carried violets on their wedding day,
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    and Napoleon sent her a bouquet of violets
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    every year on their anniversary.
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    When Josephine passed away,
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    he planted violets at her grave,
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    and just before his exile,
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    he went back to that tomb site,
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    picked some of those flowers,
    entombed them in a locket
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    and wore them until the day he died.
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    And I found this so moving,
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    I thought, could I engineer that violet
    to smell just like Josephine?
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    What if, for the rest of eternity,
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    when you went to visit her site,
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    you could smell Josephine
    just as Napoleon loved her?
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    Could we engineer new ways of mourning,
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    new rituals for remembering?
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    After all, we've engineered
    transgenic crops
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    to be maximized for profit,
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    crops that stand up to transport,
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    crops that have a long shelf life,
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    crops that taste sugary sweet
    but resist pests,
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    sometimes at the expense
    of nutritional value.
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    Can we harness these same technologies
    for an emotionally sensitive output?
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    So currently in my lab,
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    I'm researching questions like,
    what makes a human smell like a human?
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    And it turns out it's fairly complicated.
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    Factors such as your diet,
    your medications, your lifestyle
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    all factor into the way you smell.
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    And I found that our sweat
    is mostly odorless,
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    but it's our bacteria and microbiome
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    that's responsible for your smells,
    your mood, your identity
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    and so much beyond.
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    And there's all kinds
    of molecules that you emit
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    but which we only perceive subconsciously.
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    So I've been cataloging and collecting
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    bacteria from different sites of my body.
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    After talking to a scientist, we thought,
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    maybe the perfect concoction of Ani
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    is like 10 percent collarbone,
    30 percent underarm,
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    40 percent bikini line and so forth,
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    and occasionally
    I let researchers from other labs
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    take a sniff of my samples.
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    And it's been interesting to hear
    how smell of the body
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    is perceived outside
    of the context of the body.
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    I've gotten feedback such as,
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    smells like flowers, like chicken,
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    like cornflakes,
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    like beef carnitas.
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    (Laughter)
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    At the same time, I cultivate
    a set of carnivorous plants
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    for their ability to emit
    fleshlike odors to attract prey,
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    in an attempt to kind of create
    this symbiotic relationship
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    between my bacteria and this organism.
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    And as it so happens,
    I'm at MIT and I'm in a bar,
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    and I was talking to a scientist
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    who happens to be a chemist
    and a plant scientist,
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    and I was telling him about my project,
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    and he was like, "Well, this sounds
    like botany for lonely women."
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    (Laughter)
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    Unperturbed, I said, "OK."
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    I challenged him.
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    "Can we engineer a plant
    that can love me back?"
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    And for some reason,
    he was like, "Sure, why not?"
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    So we started with,
    can we get a plant to grow towards me
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    like I was the sun?
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    And so we're looking at mechanisms
    in plants such as phototropism,
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    which causes the plant
    to grow towards the sun
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    by producing hormones like auxin,
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    which causes cell elongation
    on the shady side.
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    And right now I'm creating
    a set of lipsticks
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    that are infused with these chemicals
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    that allow me to interact with a plant
    on its own chemical signatures --
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    lipsticks that cause plants
    to grow where I kiss it,
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    plants that blossom
    where I kiss the bloom.
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    And through these projects,
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    I'm asking questions like,
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    how do we define nature?
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    How do we define nature
    when we can reengineer its properties,
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    and when should we do it?
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    Should we do it for profit, for utility?
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    Can we do it for emotional ends?
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    Can biotechnology be used
    to create work as moving as music?
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    What are the thresholds between science
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    and its ability to shape
    our emotional landscape?
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    It's a famous design mantra
    that form follows function.
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    Well, now, wedged somewhere
    between science, design and art
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    I get to ask,
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    what if fiction informs fact?
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    What kind of R&D lab would that look like
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    and what kind of questions
    would we ask together?
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    We often look to technology as the answer,
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    but as an artist and designer,
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    I like to ask, but what is the question?
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    Thank you.
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    (Applause)
Title:
Synthetic biology for the senses| Ani Liu | TEDxBeaconStreet
Description:

Can biotechnology be used to create work as moving as music? Where are the thresholds between science and its ability to change our emotional landscape? Lodged between science fiction and science fact, Ani’s work explores implications of emerging technologies.

Ani Liu is a speculative technologist, artist, designer, and researcher at MIT. Lodged somewhere between science fiction and science fact, her work explores the intersection between technology, sensory perception, and the culture & implications of emerging technologies. Her work has spanned the scales of built installations, prosthetic wearables, virtual reality immersions, and synthetic biology as she searches for the epiphanies linking technological innovation with emotional affordance. She trained as an artist at Dartmouth, an architect at Harvard, and now a technologist at MIT, and continually seeks to discover the unexpected through playful experimentation, intuition, and speculative storytelling.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
07:56

English subtitles

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