Future Technologies That Will Not Kill You: The Most Mindbending Inventions at Ars Electronica

A solar powered 3D printer, bacteria that transmits AM radio signals, and geese on the moon -- these are just a few glimpses of the future that were on display at this year's Ars Electronica, one of biggest festivals for art and technology in the world...

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Sep 24 2012, 7:40pm

“That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally,” William Gibson has written. "The most interesting applications turn up on a battlefield, or in a gallery." For a few days earlier this month, there was no gallery on this wild Earth as interesting as Ars Electronica. Solar powered 3D printing, bacteria that transmit AM radio signals, and geese on the moon are just a few of the kinds of things that showed up in the future on display at this year’s installment of the biggest festival for art and technology in the world.

“Amidst the turbulence of humankind's present crises, it's clear that the world of our future will be different,” was how this year’s event was introduced by organizers, who fittingly named the event “New Concepts for a New World.” Four days of talks, screenings, exhibitions and at least one dancing drone demo captured the current state of the world like a high definition 3-D animated gif — from politics to robots, synthetic biology to surveillance. They only scratched the surface of the future, but here are five entries that made bold, beautiful statements about the odd, better world we’re all going to have. I hope.

Credit: Amos Field Reid

3D Printer of Arabia

The Solar Sinter is a 3D printer that uses sand and sun to create waterproof, three-dimensional objects. The machine itself looks like a relatively simple contraption, but its implications are pretty astounding. A video accompanying the device brings home the point of a fully off-the-grid construction process, showing the Solar Sinter’s creator, German designer Markus Kayser, printing a bowl in the middle of the desert using nothing but sand and sun and fun.

The resulting bowl might not be the smooth, refined object you’d like to put your lips to, but it is waterproof, and elicits a pretty exciting vision of a future that combines cutting edge technologies with off-the-grid living – showing that weird high-tech and ‘green’ does not require a low-tech lifestyle.

The Solar Sinter’s use of easily available, unprocessed resources (sand and sun) also slyly wink towards the ecological costs of the rising fad of 3-D printing — which almost always uses plastics, and usually ones that can’t be recycled. And amidst all the 3D printing hype, the prospect of 3D printers entering the consumer market raises serious fears about the plastic waste that will ensue. But don’t worry: the Solar Sinter shows us that even once oil scarcity makes power and plastic hard to come by, we’ll still be able to 3D print stuff. Just make sure there’s a beach nearby.

Gridbugs

Directly opposite the Solar Sinter were six little machines made from old cigar boxes and tin cans with protruding tails. They sat on a shelf, looking like cute little animals, until a video gave up their real identities. They are Energy Parasites, part of a system created by the American computer scientist and artist Eric Paulos.

Energy Parasites are little handmade machines that sit in various public places harvesting energy (that some then store in a AA battery). They are designed to attach themselves to public places like escalators, water fountains, and street lamps, and there they tap small amounts of energy for private use. While Paulos positions them as “calling into question concepts of energy ownership,” their power seems to really lie in what their tiny, almost unnoticeable intrusion onto the power grid would mean in mass numbers — what could an army of these devices power for their owners?

For what might seem like an insignificant amount of power for us may be meaningful somewhere else, especially en masse — one only has to look at the thousands of people in the developing world who make their living from what we throw away. Paulos did create some Energy Parasites that don't store energy, but use the power they harvest to light up big pink bubbles — making some of the parasites akin to next gen street art — think graffiti for the power grid.

Radio from Bacteria

Addressing energy from an entirely different angle is the Bacterial Radio, a project by the inimitable Joe Davis, a man with appointments at Harvard and MIT who’s been working at the frontiers of biology and art for over twenty years. The first living radio, it sits in a petri dish that uses only bacteria, an antenna, and the ground (and the wires to connect these all together) to transmit AM radio signals.

Joe Davis by Ars Electronica, on Flickr

The particular bacteria is E coli, the same organism that lives in your gut — except these have been modified with a gene for silicatein, taken from the sea sponge Tethya Aurantia.

The sea sponge makes use of this gene in order to be able to polymerize silica from seawater in order to create a glass exoskeleton (read: to build a shell). In the radio’s case, the genetically modified E coli was starved of silica and provided with metal salts (that serve as semi conductors) and so it polymerized those instead, building up enough metal to transmit radio signals. You just have to pick up the phone that's plugged into the Bacterial Radio to listen to the closest AM radio station, which was coming in from Romania.

Joe Davis listening for transmissions from the Bacterial Radio

While you may not be talking to the bacteria (an earlier project of Davis’ is the Audio Microscope, which enabled us to listen to the very specific sounds different species of bacteria make), the Bacterial Radio allows us to talk through bacteria, and without ever even needing a battery.

Spy Room

Communication of a different sort was central to Seiko Mikami’s “Desire of Codes.” Strikingly beautiful and strangely eerie, this installation really felt like it was from another era. I was lucky enough to first encounter it alone, entering a dark silent room with six giant robot arms hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly, these arms sprang to life, following me with their cameras as I moved through their space, and projecting their visions onto the floor beneath my feet. It was like entering into some strange, end-of-the-world dance with a security animal, who has the advantage simply by the sheer number of eyes he has.

Credit: Ryuichi Maruo [YCAM]

Next I watched about 90 small cameras moving in unison with their motorized chirps, perpetually trying to get a better view of me. Threatening in their unity, they looked like an army of bugs. Finally, I turned around to see a giant projection of an eye, made up of dozens of video clips captured by the robotic eyes over some unknown period of time, including a few of myself from some minutes prior.

It was one of the few projects at the festival that felt like it truly embodied the future rather than merely pointing at what it might be. At the same time, the piece gave a real feeling of unease, portraying a beautiful but ultimately frightening look at yourself through the eye of the security apparatus.

Moon Geese

But don't worry. The end of the world is not only about energy and security — there are also cute animals and outer space! The German artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis brought one of the most daring and sweet visions of the future to Ars Electronica, and as often happens in the realm of futurology, one that was inspired by the past.

After reading about moon geese that annually migrated between the Earth and the Moon in Francis Godwin’s 1603 story “The Man in the Moone,” Agnes started wondering what happened to the moon geese and their celestial migration patterns. So she decided to investigate with an experiment in raising a flock of moon geese and preparing them for their flight to the moon. Meyer-Brandis started with imprinting 11 geese upon herself, a process by which the geese accepted Agnes as their parent. A video shows this clearly — in one particularly stunning scene, all 11 baby geese start screaming for their mother fifteen seconds after Agnes leaves them to use the bathroom. She then spent nine months living on a farm with them and training them for their flight to the moon.

Next step in space training was the building of the “Moon Analogue,” a rehearsal for the physiological and psychological challenges of living in space (Meyer-Brandis points to the Russian’s Mars analog environment as inspiration). She then built an interactive control room for visitors to interact with the moon geese via real-time video feeds. Check out the video below, and imagine a future full of moon-fowl.

Top photo: Nicolas Ferrando, Lois Lammerhuber