Skylar Tibbits, an architect who heads up the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT.

The essence of human identity is increasingly in the hands of a new generation. We are entering a future where our biology is becoming self-defined, assembled, manufactured, and increasingly unique. For one, advancements in new materials technology are leading to potentially game-changing innovations. When combined with rapid improvements in 3D printing techniques, the applications for human biology become manifold.



However, while we know that 3D printing is poised to disrupt nearly every industry, 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. If Tibbits succeeds in creating the algorithm to make these 3D printed new material strands grow on their own, and self-fold into a specific and complex object, the future implications are enormous. 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, is working on this possible future, too. He envisions a future scenario where, if you are diagnosed with cancer, you might be injected with nano-robots that will hunt down and precisely kill the cancerous cells. According to a recent article in The Guardian, at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, researchers have been using Autodesk’s software to build nano-scale protein structures in a process called “DNA origami.” They have successfully constructed a nano-robot built from DNA strands in the form of a clamshell basket, with double-helix “locks” that are only opened when the robot comes into contact with specific cancerous cells. When the clamshell is opened, it releases specifically targeted antibodies that halt the cells’ growth, mimicking the behavior of our natural white blood cells. It is a radical and potentially groundbreaking step, which could one day do away with invasive chemotherapy treatments. 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.

Future Implications:

The 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. For instance, Project Cyborg, which is part of Autodesk’s initiative (discussed above), is a “cloud-based meta-platform of design tools for programming matter.” Cyborg allows individuals or groups to create specialized design platforms for everything from nanoparticle design to tissue engineering to self-assembling human-scale manufacturing of biomaterials.

The future implications of this are enormous. What this represents is a completely different design paradigm: it is about setting the design parameters and then letting the biological material develop and evolve on its own. If, one day, we have the ability to program physical and biological materials to change shape and change properties, these projects could eventually be scaled up to 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 between designing for science and designing a building or factory may all be based on the same paradigms and principles – each just uses different building blocks. We may see nanodesign become the next iteration of the “citizen scientist” 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.

What we may be creating, in essence, is a “print button for biology,” which could prove to be revolutionary when it comes to reshaping our humanity. We may also see more amateur biologists carry out genetic experiments in homes and garages, tinkering not with software code but with DNA, proteins and bacteria. As a result, we will undoubtedly confront a slew of privacy, moral and ethical, and health and safety-related issues and concerns in the coming years.

Photo credit: TED