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Home » Synthetic Biology for the Senses: Ani Liu at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Synthetic Biology for the Senses: Ani Liu at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)


What if our plants could sense the toxicitya levels in the soil and express that toxicity through the color of its leaves? What if those plants could also remove those toxins from the soil? Instead, what if those plants grew their own packaging, or were designed to only be harvested by their owners’ own patented machines? What happens when biological design is driven by the motivations of mass-produced commodities? What kind of world would that be?

My name is Ani, and I’m a designer and researcher at MIT Media Lab, where I’m part of a relatively new and unique group called Design Fiction, where we’re wedged somewhere between science fiction and science fact. And at MIT, I am lucky enough to rub shoulders with scientists studying all kinds of cutting edge fields like synthetic neurobiology, artificial intelligence, artificial life and everything in between.

And across campus, there’s truly brilliant scientists asking questions like, “How can I make the world a better place?” And part of what my group likes to ask is, “What is better?” What is better for you, for me, for a white woman, a gay man, a veteran, a child with a prosthetic? Technology is never neutral. It frames a reality and reflects a context. Can you imagine what it would say about the work-life balance at your office if these were standard issue on the first day? I believe it’s the role of artists and designers to raise critical questions. Art is how you can see and feel the future, and today is an exciting time to be a designer, for all the new tools becoming accessible. For instance, synthetic biology seeks to write biology as a design problem.

And through these developments, my lab asks, what are the roles and responsibilities of an artist, designer, scientist or businessman? What are the implications of synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and how are they shaping our notions of what it means to be a human? What are the implications of this on society, on evolution and what are the stakes in this game? My own speculative design research at the current moment plays with synthetic biology, but for more emotionally driven output. I’m obsessed with olfaction as a design space, and this project started with this idea of what if you could take a smell selfie, a smelfie?

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