The Big Idea

Robugs, biologically based software, the GeoWeb, transgenic art and other hot frontiers in technological innovation.

Topics: Biotechnology,

Robugs: Swarms of tiny robotic insects

Tomorrow’s robots may look more like spiders or flies than Rosie or Robby. While Japanese engineers wow crowds with expensive, complex humanoid bots like ASIMO and QRIO, groups of engineers are developing tiny mechatronic bots modeled on insects. Robots built in our image appeal to our emotions and might make good caretakers, but small, cheap and simple “robugs” would be better suited for activities like burrowing into the rubble of a collapsed building searching for survivors or, someday, traversing your colon looking for polyps.

In September, Dartmouth researchers demonstrated what they claim is the world’s smallest mobile robot. As wide as a human hair and about one-quarter of a millimeter long, the inchworm robot was fabricated out of silicon with processes similar to those used to manufacture computer chips. Eventually, minuscule robots might even inspect and repair integrated circuits, manipulate cells in biotechnology labs, or explore remote planets, thousands of them working in parallel like ant colonies.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is University of California at Berkeley professor Ronald Fearing’s Micromechanical Flying Insect. The aerodynamics of the 25mm robofly is meant to mimic the rhythmic beating of a real fly’s wings. Once it finally gets off the ground, an airborne robug outfitted with a tiny video camera would make a great “fly on the wall” for remote reconnaissance. It’s no surprise that the early robofly research was funded by the Department of Defense.

Hacking DNA: Creating life one BioBrick at a time

Biology is the nanotechnology that works. That’s the motto of Tom Knight, a computer scientist at MIT who is creating a library of genetic parts called BioBricks that could be snapped together like Tinker Toys. The BioBricks effort is part of an emerging field called synthetic biology that promises to make genetic engineering worthy of its name. Literally, the aim is to build biological systems to specs never found in nature. Imagine microbes that glow red in the presence of TNT and then digest its active ingredient, or custom-built green algae that produces hydrogen from water and sunlight for fuel cell automobiles.

The MIT crew has already hacked together synthetic genetic counters for tracking how many times a cancer cell divides, and logic gates, the building blocks of computer circuits, but in this case based on chemical inputs and outputs instead of zeros and ones.

Across the country, U.C. Berkeley scientist Jay Keasling transformed run-of-the-mill E.coli into a microbial factory that spews the raw ingredients of an anti-malaria drug, potentially cutting the cost of treatments from dollars to dimes. Further alterations to the cellular pathways could enable the bacteria to produce the anti-cancer drug Taxol. Keasling is also heading up another project to engineer a single-cell soil microbe that would swim into a pool of pesticides and mellow the nasty chemicals. Where does it end? Where life begins, it seems.

This year, J. Craig Venter, the biologist who famously led the commercial effort to sequence the Human Genome, launched a company that plans to build an entire synthetic cell from the bottom up. The first step is to determine the bare minimum genes needed for an organism to survive. Then, specific biological capabilities could be added to the minimal genome and the whole thing inserted into a single-cell bacterium stripped of its original genes. Programmed with what Venter calls “biologically based software,” this synthetic cell could then get to work producing ethanol, hydrogen, pharmaceuticals or other useful materials cleanly, efficiently and cheaply.

Location, location, location: The GeoWeb

What if you could Google the world? You might stop outside a new Chinese restaurant near the office when the smart phone in your pocket comes alive with digital graffiti posted in the wireless ether by a previous patron: “Stay away. The Thai noodle joint down the street is a better bet.” Later, you could pass a cafe where your phone buzzes with a notice that a friend on your “buddy list” is inside. The very fact that you were alerted to his location means that he’d welcome some company. Sightseeing in a new city, your phone becomes a virtual tour guide, providing you with engaging custom-tailored histories of the neighborhoods and landmarks you visit.

This is the vision of a Geospatical Web, or GeoWeb. In GeoWeb terms, cyberspace is no longer a place you go to, but rather an overlay to the physical world. The GeoWeb would link the geographic location of people, places and things with the digital information that lives on the Internet. Like the personalized ads that Tom Cruise was barraged with in “Minority Report,” you ask? That’s the worst-case scenario. Dodgeball, a location-enabled social networking service created by a New York University student and recently acquired by Google, is a better place to start. Indeed, many of the enabling technologies behind a GeoWeb are becoming common, including GPS-enabled mobile phones and urban wireless networks. And other ways for your mobile device to know where it’s at are on the way.

The path to the GeoWeb is rocky, though. Carriers often lock out developers, leading to “walled gardens” of mediocre services. And good geodata is often proprietary and pricey. Meanwhile, a dedicated cabal of independent GeoWeb enthusiasts are hammering out the standards that would guarantee interoperability and moving carefully through the mire of privacy concerns. They’re also toiling away on projects like OpenStreetMap, a distributed effort to produce free road maps of the world, and myriad Google Maps mash-ups. While wireless providers tentatively search for business models, geobloggers and map hackers are already laying claim to the future of the GeoWeb.

Maker mind-set: DIY technology

Consumer technology is built to break or, worse, to be perceived as useless or undesirable. It means that as consumers, we’re pressured to buy products repeatedly, from computers to cars. But there’s a movement emerging of people who call bullshit on planned obsolescence.

From modded TiVos to pimped-out Toyota Priuses, these individuals are boldly voiding warranties to tweak, hack and customize the products they buy. It’s a duct tape and soldering iron cultural movement that can be summed up as Martha Stewart meets 1950s-era Popular Mechanics magazines. These are tech heads who aren’t satisfied with the functionality of the standard-issue iPod so they’ve figured out how to install iPod Linux on it, thereby opening up the ubiquitous device to dozens of new features, from line-in recording of audio to playing video, long before the video-enabled iPod. They’re homebrew roboticists who transformed old computer mice into the likes of Mousey the Junkbot. They’re hardware hackers who sussed out a method to download the video off a “disposable” drugstore digital camcorder and reuse it.

And for them, the fun is in the fix. Broken gear is revived with the help of online repair guides. If there’s irreparable damage, the product is cannibalized. No user serviceable parts inside? Who says? Vintage PDAs become robot brains, the LCD display in a cheap child’s toy is reborn as a digital picture frame. MAKE:, a DIY technology magazine that I contribute to, calls this drive to tinker the “Maker Mindset.”

MAKE: has become a hub of the DIY tech movement, but it’s certainly not the only source for garage engineers. Indeed, the Web has replaced the model rocket clubs of yesteryear. Online is where you can meet the people who have launched backyard-built weather balloons to high altitudes and converted a 1970s console stereo into the world’s largest MP3 player that also digitizes old vinyl records. Makers love to share and show off their innovations. Just check out the video evidence of DIY demonstrations, like the gas-powered “Shopper Chopper” shopping cart tearing through a parking lot. As cyberpunk author William Gibson once wrote, “The street finds its own use for things.”

Biology as art: Genetic creativity

Last year, University of Buffalo professor Steven Kurtz was detained by the FBI as a bioterrorist. Kurtz’s wife had died unexpectedly in the night of heart failure. When police arrived with the paramedics that Kurtz had called, they discovered laboratory equipment and petri dishes containing benign bacteria. Kurtz, a founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble, had acquired the materials for art’s sake. His work comments on eugenics, in-vitro fertilization and genetic engineering. The FBI weren’t too up on edgy tech art, and so they launched a full-blown investigation. Surprise, surprise, no evidence of bioterrorism was found. Still, Kurtz and the former head of the genetics department at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, who helped the artist obtain the bacteria, were later indicted for “mail and wire fraud.” The federal charge carries a possible 20-year prison sentence. Of course, Kurtz isn’t the only artist using genes as his palette or commenting on the biotechnology boom. And his work certainly isn’t the weirdest.

If there’s an elder statesman of this nascent genre, it’s Eduardo Kac. In 2000, the Chicago artist collaborated with French gene jockeys to create Alba, an albino bunny with a jellyfish gene that makes her fluoresce green. According to Kac, the incredible controversy surrounding Alba’s birth was an essential phase in the project. Kac’s most recent piece of bio art is Move 36, referring to a key move made by the computer Deep Blue before it beat Gary Kasparov at chess. The installation centers around a plant engineered with a gene that spells “Cogito ergo sum” in computer code represented by genetic bases.

While Kac continues to push the boundaries of what he calls “transgenic art,” Australian artist Stelarc, known for his nervy explorations of the relationship between the body and technology, is continuing to blur the line between the natural and artificial. He’s in the process of growing an extra ear synthesized from his own cells for eventual implantation on his arm. Extra Ear is a collaboration between Stelarc and the appropriately named Tissue Culture & Art Project at the University of Western Australia. Previously, the group created a “victimless leather” jacket by growing living tissue on a polymer scaffold acting as a dress form. Are laboratories the art galleries of tomorrow? Or vice versa?

“Whenever I start a new research project, I inevitably stumble on an artist who’s been there before, maybe even decades earlier,” says Eric Paulos, a research scientist at Intel, a company well known for supporting tech art. “I always look to artists as the forerunners exploring the social and philosophical issues around new technology.”

And now, the BIGGEST IDEA in technology…

David Pescovitz is an affiliate researcher at the Institute For The Future and the co-editor of He is also the special projects editor for MAKE and the writer-in-residence for UC Berkeley's College of Engineering and the Berkeley Sciences.

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