Bull Session

Designing Bio-Inspired Technology

March 5, 2015          

Episode Summary

The age of bio-inspired technology is upon us. Whether it’s DNA as data storage, transparent displays based on mollusk shells, or surveillance robots modeled after swarming bees, the possibilities abound for natural systems to serve as patterns for the products of the future.

In this episode of The Digital Life, we consider the evolution of the designer as technologist and engineer in conjunction with the ever expanding importance of bio-inspired technologies.

Welcome to episode 92 of the Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings, Jon.

So today, let’s talk a little bit about the realm of bio inspired tech. I think this is such a tremendous area. I think Bill Gates was quoted as saying something like if he were going into tech today he would be going into biotech because that’s where all the action is. I’m paraphrasing. Bio inspired technologies are going to be huge in the future and even now we’re starting to see some of the fruits of that. I know that the science, design and engineering all come together to create some amazing things.

The first item we have to talk about today is the idea of data storage. We have data storage problems now, don’t know where to put it all and it’s hard to keep it from going bad, frankly. Data storage in a natural repository, which I think is a fascinating use of DNA couple with storage technology.

Researchers in Zurich in Switzerland have found a way of encoding 83 kilobytes of information in a DNA strand and apparently, if you have one grand of DNA you’ve got 455 exabytes or the equivalent of 455 billion gigabytes.

That’s a lot of … I don’t even know if you call it … you know, you can’t call a hard drive space sort of soft storage space, right? That’s a pretty amazing amount. At the same time, it’s really not all that stable. They have to find a way to stabilize it overtime, fossilize it maybe.

When you think of problem like data storage being solved by all-natural solution like DNA, what are the thoughts that come across your mind, Dirk?

It touches on so many things. You opened the show talking about biology and the relationship with technology. This is such a great example of that where its really where we’re headed across many different evolutions of computing technology, not just storage.

But we’re going to get more and more into both integration into your biological cells but on also getting lessons from the world of biology outside of just the human animal and incorporating those lessons as we’re now able to really understand the world just with increasing crispness and clarity.

Nature is the best technology of all. The more that we can learn from it, the more advanced the things that we’ll be able to build to extend ourselves will be. The other thing, I think, for listeners of this show that might be particularly relevant is having data storage and DNA is part of what’s going to be an increasingly growing trend which is basically interfaceless experiences.

If we assume that those path of data storage storing within our own genes basically is optimal, there’s no place for user experience in there. There will need to be a user interface, of course, but at that level it will be a system level of here’s the physical interface between the being and the computing stuff that shoves the data in.

This is a whole category for which there is no need for UX, there is no need for UI, at least in the ways that we think about them and at least in the ways that employ a whole bunch of people currently.

Data storage is just one really good example of something that’s going to be happening across a wide front, namely that we’re heading towards interfaceless experiences. That would be troubling perhaps for the many, many, many, many people who are training up and getting into what is currently a very vibrant user experience job marketplace.

Yeah. I think in a larger sense there is a huge need for bio inspired, you know, we’ll call it product design, but it’s much more than that. It’s what are the human aspects of any of these biotechnologies. What are the ways that relationships are managed and mitigated on the human side because ultimately, it is data that we’re going to want to store and retrieve in this particular example.

There’s a read-write part, a consumption part of that that ultimately has to relate to the individual whether it’s via in interface as we would normally think about it or in a larger sense of the interface, maybe it’s how the information moves from something that we can touch and manipulate into this archival state and back again.

I do think there’s tremendous need for design-type thinking, but as the UX industry has framed up currently, it doesn’t quite encompass that, I feel.

Yeah, that’s true. The questions that would still be relevant and interesting for people of perhaps the background and skills that UX people have have to do with systems and complexity and interrelationships. It’s a whole scale up and requires different types of thinking and training perhaps in a lot of the people currently engaged in UX have behind them.

Yeah. That’s an excellent point. We talk about user experiences that fits this. Well articulated craft that existed for a while, but really it’s this very young and malleable area where I think there’s some important aspects: where do they come from, sociology or ethnography or architecture or other aspects of design that have been absorbed into the general framework of user experience which may spin off again.

If you want to be a bio inspired product designer, do you start with the user experience path or do you come in via the bench scientist? Are you a lab worker first or are you a systems thinker, I don’t know. I don’t know where you start on that path. Certainly, I think you could start from a design perspective and get into it but you’d have to have that scientific rigor or at least appreciation for it.

Yeah. There’s going to be need to be a scientific and engineer knowledge at a level that 99% of designers do not engage with or begin with and even if they do today, it’s strictly limited to computer science and often more at a scripting practical level as opposed to the theory that it’s going to become more and more important as all of these sciences and technologies converged. It’s interesting stuff.

We can see the problems that we have currently just in training up designers for the user experience industry. There’s a huge gap in the amount of designers available with the right skills to handle the digital life. We can imagine, we can see a similar gap coming already on the biotech side.

There’s no doubt there’s going to be a need for human relationship with these technologies. I almost wonder as if we’re going to repeat the same mistakes on the education side not preparing the designers of the future to handle these bio inspired materials.

Well, I think that the designers of the future are largely going to be scientists and engineers. They’re not going to be designers. I think it’ll be very different. It’ll be like going back to … I guess I’m not familiar with the nitty-grittiness of computer history enough to really say this with authority, but it’ll be like going back to the 1950s through 1970s in the evolution of computing technologies where it really is the scientist, the engineer, the specialist who is creating something soup to nuts with no thought even of an independent outside designer.

Now, I think because of what’s come before at the notion of design we’ll still be in the air and there will be a role but I think it will be much more common where it will be someone who really groks the tech, really groks the science, the hard stuff and is just able to bring something, at least initially to life, without the deep involvement of design or a designer or somebody whose role is more to transition what they do from an engineering perspective into something that’s more human friendly, more usable.

As the interface itself goes away and as these technologies get closer to just being essentially part of us, there just isn’t the same need for a design layer as we understand it today as this separate thing involving other people.

Yeah. That’s a good point. When I see the evolution of call it the design field broadly, I feel like there’s a lot of opportunities that have not yet even been identified in terms of roles to play within organizations. From my perspective I do think that you’re correct about assuming that the engineering and technology part of it are going to play an extremely important part.

I also think there’s going to be a lot of hybrid roles that we’re going to see come into being over the next decade or so. For example, I’m sure that in synthetic biology there’s going to be a whole realm of software that handles the manipulation of genes in the digital environment and models that prior to actual deployment on creating these artificial organisms.

I just think this opens up a lot of other categories where design could play a role, but I think technology, as you said, will also be a dominant force there.

Yeah. We’ll see. Actually, I think this could probably be a whole other show. I know you got more on our plate. We can come back to this in another week.

Sure. I did want to mention a couple other bio inspired products and materials that caught my eye. One in particular, there is a mollusk that has optical features in its shell that scientists are looking at to create translucent displays that would essentially serve as windows or what have you in one state and then be able to display light or digital content in another state.

Imagine you’re driving in your car and when you’re stopped for some reason, the windshield perhaps becomes your display momentarily and then can become translucent again. All of this coming from the structure of this mollusk shell which essentially allows it to reflect blue light to frighten or at least to deter predators who might want to eat it.

That’s just another example, I think, of deriving from the natural order these amazing possibilities and really using nature as the R&D lab for ideas about how to structure materials.

I was pretty astounded by that. The other example I wanted to highlight today was from the field of robotics actually receiving some bio inspiration. That was in this tiny, little, swarming robots, these robot bees that are theoretically to be used for things like disaster recovery or observation or climate mapping or traffic monitoring or difficult to reach environments wherever you would need the capability of sending in robots and swarms.

Those are just two, I think, areas. You’ve got your robotics and then you’ve got your display technologies which are as different as can be but are which receiving this bio inspired materials and running with it, really. There’s probably not going to be any aspect of our technology that isn’t bio inspired at a certain point.

Well, I don’t know about that. We talked about it earlier on the show. The amount that we’re learning from the natural world, nature is the finest technology. It’s the oldest technology that we’re aware of and we’re learning more and more from it as our tools for understanding get sharper and crisper.

The two examples that you mentioned they are exciting and exhilarating. They are also a little bit scare but we’re just going to have to get over it because it’s coming. This stuff is going to just keep coming. There’s no debate, there’s no open conversation about whether this should be happening. It’s happening and so we just need to get ready.

I think you’ve made a point repeatedly about the use of drones and managing and regulating those and deploying them in a safe manner and all of the potential problems that result from drones being not handled properly.

When you’ve got the possibility of these robot bees swarms, now you’ve got the same the problems that you’d have with drones but multiplied across a swarm, I think that the rapid pace of change for this technology is being discovered and deployed it’s almost impossible for us to keep up with it a certain point.

Yeah. The potential for really malicious action is there. There’s regularly on the news. You’ll have story about somebody’s pet python got out of its cage and attacked someone in an apartment building or what have you. We’re heading to technology where there can be nanobots that basically are self-ordering actors that could clime into our bodies and kill us.

Does this technology gets so cheap and so accessible and so democratized that somebody could just unleash a thousand nanobots in ways that would hurt us? There’s people out there who do really stupid things. We’ve seen what people do in the United States, certainly, with assault weapons.

As you get these technologies that have even less accountability that have even more abstraction from actual people, you don’t have to look them in the eye as you eradicate them. What are the possibilities?

I know this example may sound a little alarmists, but if the technologies really get to a certain point of programming and affordability, this stuff is just in play and it’s weird. It’s so different certainly from the analog world that I grew up in in the ’70s and ’80s. I think it’s a cool time, man.

Yeah. I think you hit on the head there. There’s this tremendous potential for doing good and at the same time we can’t really comprehend the equal potential for doing bad things. I think we have to hope that the technologies we’re pursuing do have positive overall impact at the end, but we’ve talked about unintended consequences before and I guess we can really never know for sure.

On that note, listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com, that’s just one L in the Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode.

We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer or email me, dirk@goinvo.com.

That’s it for episode 92 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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