Jumping from silicon to carbon


The artificial technology-based world that we have created around us contains a lot of silicon. Our computers, smart phones, cars, planes, medical devices, power stations, and infrastructure networks all rely on silicon chips to process o’s and 1’s, and transistor-adorned central processing units are at the nucleus of every electronic device we deploy.

But this may be about to change. Our natural world is based on an element one level above in the periodic table; carbon. Life is built not on silicon wafers, but around carbon chains. DNA molecules define the form and function of organisms large and small, and this is a very different approach to the electronic technology we invented and developed over the last few decades.

Our silicon-based computational tools have been allowing us to analyse and decode carbon-based life for years, but only now are we starting to understand what might be needed, as a minimum, to create an autonomous organic device we term life. A recent news report outlined progress with creating a synthetic bug using what seems to be a minimum number of genes; 473 to be precise.

This is a leap beyond genetic modification because it is about creating a life form from the ground up rather than simply adjusting something that already exists. We still don’t understand the full function and scope of each of the genes, but it wont be long before we do.  And then it will be possible to create libraries of building-block genes rather like we create libraries of computer code modules, so that before long we’ll have a programming language, compiler system and developer kits to create and prescribe forms of life itself.

This will almost certainly have much in common with how the silicon-based computer industry developed. There will be organic devices that perform new functions rather like the calculator and digital watch did in the early days of silicon. These will grow in complexity and value as we develop our knowledge around the systems. And our present day silicon devices will start to look as outdated as thermionic valve technology did when silicon wafers started to emerge. But don’t expect equivalent devices; an organic timepiece is not an appropriate use of this new carbon-based technology, whereas a swarm of bee-like reconnaissance drones may well be.

A major difference, however, is around self-replication. Silicon chips do not reproduce, but life has a habit of being able to do so. On the right substrate, simple organisms like bacteria can quickly generate a colony, and more complicated life creates seeds, spores, and eggs. It is a key requisite of life that it should be able to create younger selves.  So expect our drones, our algae-based batteries, and our leafy photosynthetic solar cell roof tiles to grow, replicate and die; and more interestingly to adapt in Darwinian fashion. No longer will we have centralised factories or vast landfills. Instead, our devices will grow in-situ and we’ll throw them on the compost heap when they have completed their life cycle. And we’ll use their children and their children’s children to provide an on-going service.

This really is going to be a dramatic change to the way we live. It will throw us enormous challenges and probably provide serendipitous solutions. We will need to be careful that we don’t create a species of a device that acts as a predictor on something else we value, as they will almost certainly need to feed on something. Then again, one company may adopt this approach as a way to see off competition! But, equally something like our reconnaissance drones could also provide a pollination service as they go about their surveillance work. Honey may even be a by-product!  These carbon-based devices may also photosynthesise and help capture carbon, reducing global warming as a by product of their use. We may even legislate it as a prerequisite for any new such device on the market.

Our landscape around us will change. Life that has taken millennia to evolve on our planet will co-habit with life we seed in the laboratory. Oaks will stand alongside trees designed to behave as wind harnessing ‘turbines’, fields of pasture will butt up against plantations of device seedlings, and oceans will have shoals of fish that we designed to seek out mineral deposits for the few remaining electronic devices we still need.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder







The batch of one


Branded fashion survives on exclusivity; limiting the supply and making something desirable and aspirational. Original paintings fetch more than the prints, and limiting the prints pushes up the value of both. But now more and more commoditised consumer products offer customisation, and customers have got used to demanding it: for example cars come with a multitude of options from added equipment through to colour and upholstery.

Manufacturers achieve this range of choice by completing the production process after selling the concept. Just in time manufacturing becomes just-after-the-sale manufacturing. This has the advantage of reducing stock and wastage, but creates a headache for supply chain logistics which needs to ensure all the specific parts are available at that time.

The logical conclusion for this type of manufacturing is the batch of one, where each version of the product is unique and bespoke. Common components, but potentially no two creations the same. 3D Printing is an enabler for this type of production, because the process can be produced on demand and with the necessary variations.

The idea of batches of one is not new. Anything handmade, hand painted, or hand crafted is arguably a batch of one, but often these are created from a plan or template, so things are not so different overall. The trend, however, is for complex physical production processes to become more and more individual so as to specify the colour, shape, weight, functionality, and so on.

But is manufacturing the only place we are seeing the batch of one concept applied? Actually not. Medicine is heading that way too. In the future, as genome mapping and genetic engineering becomes prevalent, so too will treatments that are tailored to the individual. Already medicine is becoming personalised, with various cocktails of pharmaceuticals being prescribed on a case-by-case basis. However, the natural endpoint for this is for the actual drug molecules to be dispensed into a carrier pill, the carrier serum or directly into the body just when needed. Each concoction uniquely tailored to the genetic make-up and current metabolic state of the specific human body.

Then comes education. Whilst attending the NEF Innovisions 2014 conference in London last week, much emphasis was placed on the changes ahead in teaching and training. How education is delivered is changing with the advent of digital content. But soon, the course, the exercises, the references and even the final examination and qualification could be delivered as a batch of one. A specific set of materials presented in a way that the particular student will most efficiently adsorb, retain and learn from, so as to provide an optimised set of skills for a very specific job or task.

This could go full circle of course – the uniquely trained human being becoming capable to develop unique products many times over, helped by medical treatments that keep him or her not just healthy, but specifically adapted to the task; be it with provision of training, nutrition, or medicine.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Additive manufacturing is Nature’s way


3D printing is one of the latest technology trends to enthuse the public and excite the journalist. Universities are using them for research tools, manufacturers for rapid prototyping, and schools are starting to buy them for their design and technology classrooms. Indeed, earlier this year, Festival-alumnus Luke Johnson called for help in an FT article to place one in every UK school, rather than just the privileged few that could afford the investment.

And 3D printing is certainly worthy of attention. For once we are starting to consider building complex structures in an additive way; brick-by-brick on a much smaller scale. This is second nature to those brought up on Lego, and this is also second nature to Nature herself. We as humans grow by the slow but accurate deployment of new cells, seashells extend by the gradual deposition of mainly calcium carbonate, and striking geological formations build up by sedimentation of rock and debris.

So we have been witness to additive manufacturing since the day we were born, yet we tend to manufacture most artificial things using subtractive techniques on moulded or extruded billets. This is a little wasteful of material, and not particularly elegant. Imagine if trees began life as solid 100-foot-tall blocks of wood and gradually eroded to reveal their structure with a large pile of waste shavings at their foot?

As we get to grips with 3D printing, one of the key milestones will be our ability to manipulate materials during the process to create continuously changing compositions. Look carefully at that tree again, and you will see that the deposited cells create a structure that transcends through root, wood, bark, softer wood, leaf, and fruit. And these themselves have complexities visible only on the micro-scale.

So our ability to slowly 3D print a lump of plastic, albeit in a complex shape, is not really enough to congratulate ourselves about. When we can control the self-assembly of a series of structures that seamlessly change from metal to polymer to ceramic so as to provide functional mechanical and electrical properties in just the right places, we are getting there. The test, for example, might be to 3D print the electric lightbulb. Any bright ideas?

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder