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TEDxBeaconStreet

Ani Liu: Smelfies, and other experiments in synthetic biology

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Views 780,246

What if you could take a smell selfie, a smelfie? What if you had a lipstick that caused plants to grow where you kiss? Ani Liu explores the intersection of technology and sensory perception, and her work is wedged somewhere between science, design and art. In this swift, smart talk, she shares dreams, wonderings and experiments, asking: What happens when science fiction becomes science fact?

- Designer, artist
Ani Liu explores the intersection between technology and sensory perception. Full bio

What if our plants
00:12
could sense the toxicity
levels in the soil
00:14
and express that toxicity
through the color of its leaves?
00:17
What if those plants could also
remove those toxins from the soil?
00:21
Instead, what if those plants
00:26
grew their own packaging,
00:28
or were designed to only be harvested
00:30
by their owners' own patented machines?
00:33
What happens when biological design
00:35
is driven by the motivations
of mass-produced commodities?
00:37
What kind of world would that be?
00:40
My name is Ani, and I'm a designer
and researcher at MIT Media Lab,
00:43
where I'm part of a relatively new
and unique group called Design Fiction,
00:47
where we're wedged somewhere
between science fiction and science fact.
00:51
And at MIT, I am lucky enough
to rub shoulders with scientists
00:55
studying all kinds of cutting edge fields
00:59
like synthetic neurobiology,
01:01
artificial intelligence, artificial life
01:04
and everything in between.
01:06
And across campus,
there's truly brilliant scientists
01:07
asking questions like,
"How can I make the world a better place?"
01:11
And part of what my group
likes to ask is, "What is better?"
01:15
What is better for you, for me,
01:18
for a white woman, a gay man,
01:20
a veteran, a child with a prosthetic?
01:22
Technology is never neutral.
01:25
It frames a reality
01:27
and reflects a context.
01:28
Can you imagine what it would say
about the work-life balance at your office
01:30
if these were standard issue
on the first day?
01:34
(Laughter)
01:36
I believe it's the role
of artists and designers
01:37
to raise critical questions.
01:40
Art is how you can see
and feel the future,
01:42
and today is an exciting
time to be a designer,
01:44
for all the new tools becoming accessible.
01:47
For instance, synthetic biology
01:49
seeks to write biology
as a design problem.
01:51
And through these developments,
01:54
my lab asks, what are the roles
and responsibilities
01:55
of an artist, designer,
scientist or businessman?
01:58
What are the implications
02:02
of synthetic biology, genetic engineering,
02:04
and how are they shaping our notions
of what it means to be a human?
02:07
What are the implications of this
on society, on evolution
02:11
and what are the stakes in this game?
02:15
My own speculative design research
at the current moment
02:17
plays with synthetic biology,
02:21
but for more emotionally driven output.
02:22
I'm obsessed with olfaction
as a design space,
02:25
and this project started with this idea
02:28
of what if you could take
a smell selfie, a smelfie?
02:31
(Laughter)
02:34
What if you could take
your own natural body odor
02:36
and send it to a lover?
02:39
Funny enough, I found that this
was a 19th century Austrian tradition,
02:41
where couples in courtship
would keep a slice of apple
02:45
crammed under their armpit during dances,
02:47
and at the end of the evening,
02:50
the girl would give the guy
she most fancied her used fruit,
02:51
and if the feeling was mutual,
02:55
he would wolf down that stinky apple.
02:57
(Laughter)
02:59
Famously, Napoleon wrote
many love letters to Josephine,
03:03
but perhaps amongst the most memorable
is this brief and urgent note:
03:07
"Home in three days. Don't bathe."
03:11
(Laughter)
03:13
Both Napoleon and Josephine
adored violets.
03:15
Josephine wore violet-scented perfume,
03:19
carried violets on their wedding day,
03:21
and Napoleon sent her a bouquet of violets
03:23
every year on their anniversary.
03:25
When Josephine passed away,
03:26
he planted violets at her grave,
03:28
and just before his exile,
03:30
he went back to that tomb site,
03:31
picked some of those flowers,
entombed them in a locket
03:34
and wore them until the day he died.
03:36
And I found this so moving,
03:38
I thought, could I engineer that violet
to smell just like Josephine?
03:40
What if, for the rest of eternity,
03:44
when you went to visit her site,
03:45
you could smell Josephine
just as Napoleon loved her?
03:47
Could we engineer new ways of mourning,
03:50
new rituals for remembering?
03:53
After all, we've engineered
transgenic crops
03:55
to be maximized for profit,
03:57
crops that stand up to transport,
04:00
crops that have a long shelf life,
04:02
crops that taste sugary sweet
but resist pests,
04:04
sometimes at the expense
of nutritional value.
04:06
Can we harness these same technologies
for an emotionally sensitive output?
04:10
So currently in my lab,
04:14
I'm researching questions like,
what makes a human smell like a human?
04:16
And it turns out it's fairly complicated.
04:19
Factors such as your diet,
your medications, your lifestyle
04:21
all factor into the way you smell.
04:25
And I found that our sweat
is mostly odorless,
04:27
but it's our bacteria and microbiome
04:29
that's responsible for your smells,
your mood, your identity
04:31
and so much beyond.
04:35
And there's all kinds
of molecules that you emit
04:37
but which we only perceive subconsciously.
04:39
So I've been cataloging and collecting
04:43
bacteria from different sites of my body.
04:45
After talking to a scientist, we thought,
04:47
maybe the perfect concoction of Ani
04:49
is like 10 percent collarbone,
30 percent underarm,
04:51
40 percent bikini line and so forth,
04:55
and occasionally
I let researchers from other labs
04:57
take a sniff of my samples.
05:00
And it's been interesting to hear
how smell of the body
05:02
is perceived outside
of the context of the body.
05:05
I've gotten feedback such as,
05:08
smells like flowers, like chicken,
05:10
like cornflakes,
05:12
like beef carnitas.
05:13
(Laughter)
05:15
At the same time, I cultivate
a set of carnivorous plants
05:17
for their ability to emit
fleshlike odors to attract prey,
05:20
in an attempt to kind of create
this symbiotic relationship
05:24
between my bacteria and this organism.
05:27
And as it so happens,
I'm at MIT and I'm in a bar,
05:31
and I was talking to a scientist
05:34
who happens to be a chemist
and a plant scientist,
05:36
and I was telling him about my project,
05:38
and he was like, "Well, this sounds
like botany for lonely women."
05:40
(Laughter)
05:44
Unperturbed, I said, "OK."
05:47
I challenged him.
05:49
"Can we engineer a plant
that can love me back?"
05:51
And for some reason,
he was like, "Sure, why not?"
05:54
So we started with,
can we get a plant to grow towards me
05:58
like I was the sun?
06:00
And so we're looking at mechanisms
in plants such as phototropism,
06:02
which causes the plant
to grow towards the sun
06:06
by producing hormones like auxin,
06:08
which causes cell elongation
on the shady side.
06:10
And right now I'm creating
a set of lipsticks
06:13
that are infused with these chemicals
06:15
that allow me to interact with a plant
on its own chemical signatures --
06:17
lipsticks that cause plants
to grow where I kiss it,
06:20
plants that blossom
where I kiss the bloom.
06:24
And through these projects,
06:27
I'm asking questions like,
06:29
how do we define nature?
06:31
How do we define nature
when we can reengineer its properties,
06:33
and when should we do it?
06:36
Should we do it for profit, for utility?
06:38
Can we do it for emotional ends?
06:41
Can biotechnology be used
to create work as moving as music?
06:43
What are the thresholds between science
06:47
and its ability to shape
our emotional landscape?
06:49
It's a famous design mantra
that form follows function.
06:52
Well, now, wedged somewhere
between science, design and art
06:56
I get to ask,
07:00
what if fiction informs fact?
07:01
What kind of R&D lab would that look like
07:03
and what kind of questions
would we ask together?
07:05
We often look to technology as the answer,
07:07
but as an artist and designer,
07:10
I like to ask, but what is the question?
07:11
Thank you.
07:14
(Applause)
07:15

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About the speaker:

Ani Liu - Designer, artist
Ani Liu explores the intersection between technology and sensory perception.

Why you should listen

Ani Liu is a transdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of art and science. Currently at MIT Media Lab, she creates research-based art that explores the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging technologies. In the search to link scientific innovation with emotional tangibility, her work has spanned the scales of architectural installations, wearable prosthetics, augmented reality and synthetic biology.

Liu's work has been presented at the Boston Museum of Fine ArtsAsian Art MuseumMIT Museum , MIT Media Lab, Wiesner Gallery, Harvard University, Open Gallery, Powerhouse Alliance Conference, Buildings as Cities Inaugural Conference and TEDxBeaconStreet. Her work has been featured in several publications, including See Yourself X: Human Futures Expanded and Solid: Design Techniques.

In 2014-15, she led the research program in Sensory Mediation at the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities, which explores how information visualization, augmented reality and other emerging technologies can be harnessed to extend the human sensorium to redefine spatial experience.

She taught as an Associate Instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she co-taught an advanced-level architectural studio called Architecture of Cultural Prosthetics: Tools for Communication and Expression in the Public Space with Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Liu has a BA from Dartmouth College and received a Masters of Architecture degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, earning a distinction for her thesis in wearable technologies, responsive environments and cultural prosthetics. She continually seeks to discover the unexpected, through playful experimentation, intuition and speculative storytelling.


More profile about the speaker
Ani Liu | Speaker | TED.com