Innovations in 3D printing, wearable technology and Big Data are enabling a greater understanding of our own biology. Yet with opportunities come new challenges.
Who are we? That unresolvable question may increasingly give way to “What are we?” This is because we are fast entering a future where our biology is becoming more self-defined, assembled, manufactured and unique. Great disruptive technologies, in combination with enormous advancements in science, are shifting our understanding of our own biology. We are:
- Crunching Big Data;
- Tapping into social networking;
- Relying on sophisticated medical diagnostic tools & wearable devices;
- Leveraging health-related mobile apps;
- Enabling real-time mapping of disease outbreaks;
- Sequencing the genetic code;
- Mapping the human brain;
- Learning more about the complex interplay between our senses;
- Discovering the intricacies of the mind;
The list goes on. Intriguing new materials, tools and automation techniques promise game-changing innovations in the health sector. When combined with rapid improvements in 3D printing techniques, the applications for human biology become manifold.
For instance, scientists have used a custom 3D printer to create synthetic tissue that mimics the properties of living tissue. Using water and oil, the team created a network of “programmable” droplets that can replicate some behaviors of living tissue. In the future, not only could synthetic tissue replace missing or damaged tissues in living beings, but it also could help deliver medications to specific areas of the body.
What we see happening is that the essence of human identity is increasingly in the hands of a new generation. And this is just the beginning.
Moving From 3D to 4D Printing
We know that 3D printing is poised to disrupt nearly every industry, and now MIT is looking even further into the future by introducing the idea of 4D printing – which incorporates time as the fourth dimension, with 3D printed structures changing their form when activated.
The concept of self-assembly isn’t new — it’s been used at nanoscale for years. But Skylar Tibbits, an architect who heads up the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, alongside 3D printing company Stratasys, has developed a breakthrough new material that transforms in water — so that an object could be printed on a 3D printer, submersed in a tub, and then expand. If programmed correctly, it would self-assemble into a pre-determined shape. Eventually, he hopes to move beyond water to light, heat and even sound.
Carlos Olguin, director of the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group at Autodesk envisions a future scenario where, if you are diagnosed with cancer, you might be injected with nano-robots that will track down and selectively kill the cancerous cells. While the kinks are still being worked out, a 4D future could signal a fundamental shift in how designers, doctors, scientists and engineers think and operate.
Life as Design
This world of design, and design thinking, is beginning to explore beyond just the inorganic and inert world to increasingly penetrate the outer boundaries of organic life. This represents a completely different design paradigm: it is about setting the design parameters and then letting the biological material develop and evolve on its own — whether it’s nano-robots in your body or self-folding strands. If, one day, we have the ability to program physical and biological materials to change shape and change properties, it could create a future of smart pharmacology, personalized medicine, programmable cells and tissues and precisely targeted treatments.
As design software increasingly merges with molecular biology, and the emerging nanoscale world of synthetic biology and new materials, the lines will blur between designing for science and designing a building or factory. They will be based on the same paradigms and principles — each just using different building blocks.
We may see nanodesign become the next iteration of the Maker Movement – the name given to the increasing number of people employing do-it-yourself (DIY) and do-it-with-others (DIWO) techniques and processes to develop unique technology products without supportive infrastructure. Scientists, engineers, students and “citizen scientists” may become the biological tinkerers and designers of tomorrow.
Democratization of Creation — The Future of Biohacking
While biohacking is just coming of age, it could likely cover the same range of behaviors as computer hacking — from creative exploration to devastation — with consequences that are even more profound. Biohacking is increasingly available to those who want to find ways to modify living creatures (and create new creatures entirely) on their own.
But it could also prove to be revolutionary when it comes to reshaping our humanity. As more amateur biologists carry out genetic experiments in homes and garages — and tinker not with software code but with DNA, proteins and bacteria — we will increasingly confront a slew of questions around privacy, morality and ethics, as well as health and safety-related concerns.
Conversations surrounding the ethical nature of bioprinting will likely grow in volume and intensity. As 3D printing grows rapidly in the medical and health sector, there will undoubtedly be increasing controversy around printing everything from whole organs to stem cells. Moral, ethical and legal debates will continue as bioprinting becomes more commonplace, more affordable and more available.
While regulation will try to play a game of catch-up, the technology will always outpace it. And just like the advancements being made in 3D/4D printing, there are a huge number possibilities coming out of the synthetic biology revolution — although growing concerns about the potential for the bioengineering of deadly viruses (either by error or intention) will abound.
As the question of “What are we” is becoming increasingly knowable, it also becomes more challenging.
(Top image: A polymer strand dropped in water folds itself into the MIT logo, courtesy of MIT.)
Erica Orange is Executive Vice President & COO of The Future Hunters, a boutique futurist consultancy that looks at long-term global trends.