15:16
TED2006

Saul Griffith: Everyday inventions

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Inventor and MacArthur fellow Saul Griffith shares some innovative ideas from his lab -- from "smart rope" to a house-sized kite for towing large loads.

- Inventor
Inventor Saul Griffith looks for elegant ways to make real things, from low-cost eyeglasses to a kite that tows boats. His latest projects include open-source inventions and elegant new ways to generate power. Full bio

So anyway, who am I?
00:24
I usually say to people, when they say, "What do you do?"
00:25
I say, "I do hardware,"
00:28
because it sort of conveniently encompasses everything I do.
00:30
And I recently said that to a venture capitalist casually at some
00:32
Valley event, to which he replied, "How quaint."
00:36
(Laughter)
00:39
And I sort of really was dumbstruck.
00:41
And I really should have said something smart.
00:44
And now I've had a little bit of time to think about it,
00:46
I would have said, "Well, you know,
00:51
if we look at the next 100 years
00:53
and we've seen all these problems in the last few days,
00:55
most of the big issues -- clean water, clean energy --
00:57
and they're interchangeable in some respects --
01:00
and cleaner, more functional materials --
01:02
they all look to me to be hardware problems.
01:04
This doesn't mean we should ignore software,
01:07
or information, or computation."
01:09
And that's in fact probably what I'm going to try and tell you about.
01:11
So, this talk is going to be about how do we make things
01:14
and what are the new ways that we're going to make things in the future.
01:17
Now, TED sends you a lot of spam if you're a speaker
01:22
about "do this, do that" and you fill out all these forms,
01:27
and you don't actually know how they're going to describe you,
01:29
and it flashed across my desk that they were going to introduce me as a futurist.
01:32
And I've always been nervous about the term "futurist,"
01:35
because you seem doomed to failure because you can't really predict it.
01:37
And I was laughing about this with the very smart colleagues I have,
01:40
and said, "You know, well, if I have to talk about the future, what is it?"
01:43
And George Homsey, a great guy, said, "Oh, the future is amazing.
01:47
It is so much stranger than you think.
01:52
We're going to reprogram the bacteria in your gut,
01:54
and we're going to make your poo smell like peppermint."
01:56
(Laughter)
02:01
So, you may think that's sort of really crazy,
02:03
but there are some pretty amazing things that are happening
02:06
that make this possible.
02:08
So, this isn't my work, but it's work of good friends of mine at MIT.
02:09
This is called the registry of standard biological parts.
02:13
This is headed by Drew Endy and Tom Knight
02:15
and a few other very, very bright individuals.
02:17
Basically, what they're doing is looking at biology as a programmable system.
02:20
Literally, think of proteins as subroutines
02:23
that you can string together to execute a program.
02:27
Now, this is actually becoming such an interesting idea.
02:30
This is a state diagram. That's an extremely simple computer.
02:35
This one is a two-bit counter.
02:38
So that's essentially the computational equivalent of two light switches.
02:40
And this is being built by a group of students at Zurich
02:46
for a design competition in biology.
02:49
And from the results of the same competition last year,
02:51
a University of Texas team of students programmed bacteria
02:54
so that they can detect light and switch on and off.
02:58
So this is interesting in the sense that you can now
03:01
do "if-then-for" statements in materials, in structure.
03:03
This is a pretty interesting trend,
03:08
because we used to live in a world where everyone's said glibly,
03:10
"Form follows function," but I think I've sort of grown up in a world
03:12
-- you listened to Neil Gershenfeld yesterday;
03:16
I was in a lab associated with his -- where it's really a world
03:19
where information defines form and function.
03:23
I spent six years thinking about that,
03:26
but to show you the power of art over science --
03:30
this is actually one of the cartoons I write. These are called "HowToons."
03:32
I work with a fabulous illustrator called Nick Dragotta.
03:35
Took me six years at MIT,
03:37
and about that many pages to describe what I was doing,
03:39
and it took him one page. And so this is our muse Tucker.
03:43
He's an interesting little kid -- and his sister, Celine --
03:48
and what he's doing here
03:50
is observing the self-assembly of his Cheerios in his cereal bowl.
03:52
And in fact you can program the self-assembly of things,
03:56
so he starts chocolate-dipping edges,
03:59
changing the hydrophobicity and the hydrophylicity.
04:01
In theory, if you program those sufficiently,
04:03
you should be able to do something pretty interesting
04:05
and make a very complex structure.
04:07
In this case, he's done self-replication of a complex 3D structure.
04:09
And that's what I thought about for a long time,
04:14
because this is how we currently make things.
04:17
This is a silicon wafer, and essentially
04:19
that's just a whole bunch of layers of two-dimensional stuff, sort of layered up.
04:21
The feature side is -- you know, people will say,
04:25
[unclear] down around about 65 nanometers now.
04:27
On the right, that's a radiolara.
04:29
That's a unicellular organism ubiquitous in the oceans.
04:31
And that has feature sizes down to about 20 nanometers,
04:34
and it's a complex 3D structure.
04:38
We could do a lot more with computers and things generally
04:40
if we knew how to build things this way.
04:44
The secret to biology is, it builds computation
04:47
into the way it makes things. So this little thing here, polymerase,
04:50
is essentially a supercomputer designed for replicating DNA.
04:53
And the ribosome here is another little computer
04:58
that helps in the translation of the proteins.
05:01
I thought about this
05:03
in the sense that it's great to build in biological materials,
05:04
but can we do similar things?
05:07
Can we get self-replicating-type behavior?
05:09
Can we get complex 3D structure automatically assembling
05:11
in inorganic systems?
05:15
Because there are some advantages to inorganic systems,
05:17
like higher speed semiconductors, etc.
05:19
So, this is some of my work
05:21
on how do you do an autonomously self-replicating system.
05:23
And this is sort of Babbage's revenge.
05:29
These are little mechanical computers.
05:31
These are five-state state machines.
05:32
So, that's about three light switches lined up.
05:35
In a neutral state, they won't bind at all.
05:38
Now, if I make a string of these, a bit string,
05:40
they will be able to replicate.
05:44
So we start with white, blue, blue, white.
05:46
That encodes; that will now copy. From one comes two,
05:47
and then from two comes three.
05:53
And so you've got this sort of replicating system.
05:55
It was work actually by Lionel Penrose,
05:59
father of Roger Penrose, the tiles guy.
06:01
He did a lot of this work in the '60s,
06:04
and so a lot of this logic theory lay fallow
06:06
as we went down the digital computer revolution, but it's now coming back.
06:08
So now I'm going to show you the hands-free, autonomous self-replication.
06:11
So we've tracked in the video the input string,
06:15
which was green, green, yellow, yellow, green.
06:17
We set them off on this air hockey table.
06:19
You know, high science uses air hockey tables --
06:23
(Laughter)
06:25
-- and if you watch this thing long enough you get dizzy,
06:26
but what you're actually seeing is copies of that original string
06:28
emerging from the parts bin that you have here.
06:31
So we've got autonomous replication of bit strings.
06:34
So, why would you want to replicate bit strings?
06:39
Well, it turns out biology has this other very interesting meme,
06:42
that you can take a linear string, which is a convenient thing to copy,
06:45
and you can fold that into an arbitrarily complex 3D structure.
06:48
So I was trying to, you know, take the engineer's version:
06:52
Can we build a mechanical system in inorganic materials
06:55
that will do the same thing?
06:58
So what I'm showing you here is that we can make a 2D shape --
06:59
the B -- assemble from a string of components
07:04
that follow extremely simple rules.
07:08
And the whole point of going with the extremely simple rules here,
07:10
and the incredibly simple state machines in the previous design,
07:13
was that you don't need digital logic to do computation.
07:16
And that way you can scale things much smaller than microchips.
07:19
So you can literally use these as the tiny components in the assembly process.
07:23
So, Neil Gershenfeld showed you this video on Wednesday, I believe,
07:27
but I'll show you again.
07:32
This is literally the colored sequence of those tiles.
07:34
Each different color has a different magnetic polarity,
07:37
and the sequence is uniquely specifying the structure that is coming out.
07:40
Now, hopefully, those of you who know anything about graph theory
07:45
can look at that, and that will satisfy you
07:48
that that can also do arbitrary 3D structure,
07:50
and in fact, you know, I can now take a dog, carve it up
07:53
and then reassemble it so it's a linear string
07:58
that will fold from a sequence. And now
08:00
I can actually define that three-dimensional object as a sequence of bits.
08:02
So, you know, it's a pretty interesting world
08:09
when you start looking at the world a little bit differently.
08:12
And the universe is now a compiler.
08:14
And so I'm thinking about, you know, what are the programs
08:17
for programming the physical universe?
08:19
And how do we think about materials and structure,
08:22
sort of as an information and computation problem?
08:25
Not just where you attach a micro-controller to the end point,
08:28
but that the structure and the mechanisms are the logic, are the computers.
08:31
Having totally absorbed this philosophy,
08:36
I started looking at a lot of problems a little differently.
08:41
With the universe as a computer,
08:44
you can look at this droplet of water
08:45
as having performed the computations.
08:47
You set a couple of boundary conditions, like gravity,
08:49
the surface tension, density, etc., and then you press "execute,"
08:51
and magically, the universe produces you a perfect ball lens.
08:55
So, this actually applied to the problem
09:00
of -- so there's a half a billion to a billion people in the world
09:02
don't have access to cheap eyeglasses.
09:05
So can you make a machine
09:07
that could make any prescription lens very quickly on site?
09:09
This is a machine where you literally define a boundary condition.
09:13
If it's circular, you make a spherical lens.
09:17
If it's elliptical, you can make an astigmatic lens.
09:20
You then put a membrane on that and you apply pressure --
09:23
so that's part of the extra program.
09:26
And literally with only those two inputs --
09:28
so, the shape of your boundary condition and the pressure --
09:31
you can define an infinite number of lenses
09:33
that cover the range of human refractive error,
09:35
from minus 12 to plus eight diopters, up to four diopters of cylinder.
09:37
And then literally, you now pour on a monomer.
09:42
You know, I'll do a Julia Childs here.
09:45
This is three minutes of UV light.
09:48
And you reverse the pressure on your membrane
09:51
once you've cooked it. Pop it out.
09:54
I've seen this video, but I still don't know if it's going to end right.
09:57
(Laughter)
10:00
So you reverse this. This is a very old movie,
10:03
so with the new prototypes, actually both surfaces are flexible,
10:05
but this will show you the point.
10:09
Now you've finished the lens, you literally pop it out.
10:11
That's next year's Yves Klein, you know, eyeglasses shape.
10:13
And you can see that that has a mild prescription of about minus two diopters.
10:20
And as I rotate it against this side shot, you'll see that that has cylinder,
10:23
and that was programmed in --
10:27
literally into the physics of the system.
10:28
So, this sort of thinking about structure as computation
10:32
and structure as information leads to other things, like this.
10:35
This is something that my people at SQUID Labs
10:40
are working on at the moment, called "electronic rope."
10:43
So literally, you think about a rope. It has very complex structure in the weave.
10:45
And under no load, it's one structure.
10:49
Under a different load, it's a different structure. And you can actually exploit that
10:51
by putting in a very small number of
10:54
conducting fibers to actually make it a sensor.
10:56
So this is now a rope that knows the load on the rope
10:58
at any particular point in the rope.
11:01
Just by thinking about the physics of the world,
11:03
materials as the computer,
11:06
you can start to do things like this.
11:08
I'm going to segue a little here.
11:11
I guess I'm just going to casually tell you the types of things
11:14
that I think about with this.
11:16
One thing I'm really interested about this right now is, how,
11:17
if you're really taking this view of the universe as a computer,
11:21
how do we make things in a very general sense,
11:25
and how might we share the way we make things in a general sense
11:27
the same way you share open source hardware?
11:31
And a lot of talks here have espoused the benefits
11:34
of having lots of people look at problems,
11:37
share the information and work on those things together.
11:39
So, a convenient thing about being a human is you move in linear time,
11:42
and unless Lisa Randall changes that,
11:45
we'll continue to move in linear time.
11:47
So that means anything you do, or anything you make,
11:50
you produce a sequence of steps --
11:52
and I think Lego in the '70s nailed this,
11:54
and they did it most elegantly.
11:57
But they can show you how to build things in sequence.
11:58
So, I'm thinking about, how can we generalize
12:02
the way we make all sorts of things,
12:05
so you end up with this sort of guy, right?
12:07
And I think this applies across a very broad -- sort of, a lot of concepts.
12:09
You know, Cameron Sinclair yesterday said,
12:14
"How do I get everyone to collaborate on design
12:16
globally to do housing for humanity?"
12:18
And if you've seen Amy Smith,
12:21
she talks about how you get students at MIT
12:23
to work with communities in Haiti.
12:27
And I think we have to sort of redefine and rethink
12:29
how we define structure and materials and assembly things,
12:31
so that we can really share the information
12:35
on how you do those things in a more profound way
12:37
and build on each other's source code for structure.
12:39
I don't know exactly how to do this yet,
12:42
but, you know, it's something being actively thought about.
12:43
So, you know, that leads to questions
12:48
like, is this a compiler? Is this a sub-routine?
12:50
Interesting things like that.
12:54
Maybe I'm getting a little too abstract, but you know,
12:55
this is the sort of -- returning to our comic characters --
12:58
this is sort of the universe, or a different universe view,
13:01
that I think is going to be very prevalent in the future --
13:03
from biotech to materials assembly. It was great to hear Bill Joy.
13:05
They're starting to invest in materials science,
13:08
but these are the new things in materials science.
13:11
How do we put real information and real structure into new ideas,
13:13
and see the world in a different way? And it's not going to be binary code
13:17
that defines the computers of the universe --
13:20
it's sort of an analog computer.
13:22
But it's definitely an interesting new worldview.
13:24
I've gone too far. So that sounds like it's it.
13:29
I've probably got a couple of minutes of questions,
13:32
or I can show -- I think they also said that I do extreme stuff
13:34
in the introduction, so I may have to explain that.
13:38
So maybe I'll do that with this short video.
13:42
So this is actually a 3,000-square-foot kite,
13:45
which also happens to be a minimal energy surface.
13:51
So returning to the droplet, again,
13:53
thinking about the universe in a new way.
13:55
This is a kite designed by a guy called Dave Kulp.
13:57
And why do you want a 3,000-square-foot kite?
13:59
So that's a kite the size of your house.
14:01
And so you want that to tow boats very fast.
14:03
So I've been working on this a little, also,
14:07
with a couple of other guys.
14:10
But, you know, this is another way to look at the --
14:12
if you abstract again,
14:14
this is a structure that is defined by the physics of the universe.
14:16
You could just hang it as a bed sheet,
14:20
but again, the computation of all the physics
14:21
gives you the aerodynamic shape.
14:23
And so you can actually sort of almost double your boat speed
14:25
with systems like that. So that's sort of another interesting aspect of the future.
14:28
(Applause)
14:35

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About the Speaker:

Saul Griffith - Inventor
Inventor Saul Griffith looks for elegant ways to make real things, from low-cost eyeglasses to a kite that tows boats. His latest projects include open-source inventions and elegant new ways to generate power.

Why you should listen

Innovator and inventor Saul Griffith has a uniquely open approach to problem solving. Whether he's devising a way to slash the cost of prescription eyeglasses or teaching science through cartoons, Griffith makes things and then shares his ideas with the world.

A proponent of open-source information, he established Instructables , an open website showing how to make an array of incredible objects. He is the co-founder of numerous companies including Squid Labs, Low Cost Eyeglasses, Potenco and Makani Power, where he is President and Chief Scientist. His companies have invented a myriad of new devices and materials, such as a "smart" rope that senses its load, or a machine for making low-cost eyeglass lenses through a process inspired by a water droplet. He is a columnist at Make magazine and co-writes How Toons! He's fascinated with materials that assemble themselves, and with taking advantage of those properties to make things quickly and cheaply.

More profile about the speaker
Saul Griffith | Speaker | TED.com