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Synthetic bees, prosthetic eyes: Fellows Friday with Anab Jain

Anab Jain’s design studio Superflux envisions a future where the blind are given ultraviolet vision and invasive species are engineered to combat the effects of climate change. She shares her perspective on our not-too-distant future.

How would you describe the work that you do at your revolutionary design studio Superflux?

We are living in extremely uncertain times. Things are changing rapidly, and everyone is racing to come to terms with the changes being wrought on our society, economy, and culture. As a multidisciplinary collaborative design practice, we at Superflux are in a strong position to help facilitate that process. We’re particularly interested in emerging technologies, and the ways they interface with everyday life.

In the past, your projects have included imagining futures with synthetic bees and wi-fi enabled pets. What’s one of the most exciting things you’re working on now?

We have been working with Newcastle’s Dr. Patrick Degenaar and his team of neuroprostheticists, who are using the technology of optogenetics to restore sight to those with degenerative visual impairment. We’ve been approaching this project both as designers, and as people interested in exploring the broader implications of new technologies.

In the proposed optogenetic retinal prosthesis, a virus is injected into the eye of a visually impaired person, infecting the cells with a light-sensitive protein. A wearable headset fires pulses of light at these sensitised cells, mimicking the “neural song” the healthy eye uses to communicate with the brain. This artificial song is then interpreted as “vision” by the brain’s imaging centers.

While much of this work is still at the research stage, there is one specific anecdote that highlights the value of incorporating a design approach at this early stage. The researchers have been testing some of their image augmentation concepts with a selection of visually impaired people with a condition in which the “resolution” of their vision is similar to the vision that will be possible with the first generation of these optogenetic retinal prostheses. The researchers learned that a simplified, cartoon-style vision might help participants be able to function more effectively. But the participants found the experience uncanny, often admitting that they’d “rather be blind than have my world look like that.”

So while the technology is exciting, the scientists were approaching their project from a very data-centric, strictly operational direction. As designers, we find ourselves thinking a lot about the emotional experience of such radical technologies, wondering what it might feel like to have your body modified to interface better with a machine, what it might mean to have prosthetic or augmented vision, and what the technology’s operating system and interface might look like. How will it affect the way users relate to other people and, more generally, to their world?

Supeflux’s vision of a headset to enable prosthetic vision.

Through our conversations with the scientists, we realized that, while this prosthetic vision might have a relatively low resolution, the range and variety of potential inputs are vast. Users of the technology would be able to access parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are not visible to the ‘normally sighted’. People could, for example, shift into the depths of infrared light to see heat patterns in the environment, or access ultraviolet ‘bee vision’ to see plants and flowers the way bees do. They could also digitally augment their vision, projecting maps, diagrams, and information onto the world around them. We explored some of these scenarios in a short film, dubbed Song of the Machine.


These possibilities had not been envisaged by the scientists, who began to consider what it might mean to live your life, lay down memories, and even fall in love through the lens of this technology. I really think that’s where the value lies in this kind of collaboration and exchange of ideas. In some ways, the most exciting part of this project is that it’s not just “science fiction” or some kind of distant future. We are already working on the next phase of this project: shaping the product invention for commercial purposes, in close collaboration with the technologists and visually impaired community.

You currently have some work being exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Yes, two of our projects are on display at MoMA until November 7th, as part of Paola Antonelli’s ‘Talk to Me’ exhibition. One of the projects is Lukalive, a short film about a wi-fi enabled Dalmatian, and the other is the 5th Dimensional Camera.

The 5th Dimensional Camera. (Photo: EPSRC Press)

With the 5th Dimensional Camera, we worked with quantum physicists and material scientists from Oxford University. For this project, the idea was to engage the public with a strand of science that’s extremely abstract and intangible, building on the work of a team of researchers who are trying to build a quantum computer. With quantum computing, parallel information processing opens the door to the fast factorization of enormous data sets. This is exciting and important, but the scientists didn’t quite know how to ‘sell’ their research to the public-at-large. So our brief was to help the public understand the possible uses and implications of this technology.

As part of our research, we spoke with Dr. David Deutsch, widely known as the “father of quantum computing” (he’s given two TED talks). His argument is that, if successful, quantum information processing will prove Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Everett’s interpretation says that whenever we observe the outcome of a quantum event, the timeline splits, creating a second world, where the event produced an opposite outcome. It is Dr. Deutsch’s assertion that this is the mechanism by which a quantum computer will function.

We found this idea of multiple universes and branching timelines truly fascinating. For us, the most interesting aspect of quantum computation was not what it might be able to achieve, but what it would say about the very nature of reality. What if you could directly access these other worlds, instead of just using them for information processing? What if we turned that quantum computer inside out?

To create a prop that would help people engage with the science, we began working on something we called the “Fifth Dimensional Camera,” a fictional device that takes photographs of parallel worlds. Much as a quantum computer is said to take a ‘snapshot’ of the many worlds of informational possibilities within itself, the Fifth Dimensional Camera would take a snapshot of the many possible worlds at a human scale. In itself, this was still quite an abstract idea. To help locate the camera in a wider context, we created stories around three characters that engaged with the camera on a daily basis, exploring the potentialities and near misses of their everyday life.

Snapshots of many worlds from the 5th Dimensional Camera. (Photos: Jon Ardern)

You’ve said that you are passionate about building visions of a desirable future. Don’t you feel that some of your designs envision a dark future?

That’s a good question. I think that what we are most keen to highlight is that there’s not just one possible future, but many. We are upfront about the fact that some of our work can be quite provocative. It might not be strictly desirable to have synthetic bees as pollinators, but the technology that could allow this to happen is waiting in the wings. We are interested in imagining interactions: how might biologically-engineered bees coexist with natural bees? If we don’t create these experience prototypes and stories, it’s difficult to fully engage with the technology before it’s out in the world.

Superflux’s synthetic bee prototypes.

Even if we have to reject some of the prototyped possibilities – as impractical, say, or ethically dubious – there will be some that will spark the imagination, leading to real, tangible opportunities for new products and services.

We need look no further than some of the projects we have launched in India. With Project LiloRann, we are developing ideas alongside the local community, helping to combat desertification and looking for creative ways to tackle the impact of invasive species. As we work on a theory of change, our ambition is to design for “positive tipping points” — small-scale interventions with a disproportionate impact, capable of tipping the balance from environmental decline to a subtle remediation.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What one piece of advice would you give them, based on your own experience and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

You don’t have to be this fresh-faced 21-year-old to be an entrepreneur. If you have an idea, you can go with it at any time. Also, talk to everybody. You don’t know who might be interested in your idea, and you need to be looking for resources in places that you might not otherwise have considered.

In the future, some of your seemingly fantastical designs may become household items. Which of your designs would you most like to be remembered for?

That’s a difficult question, because I’ve increasingly moved away from the worldview of the designer as an icon or hero, known only for one or few “iconic products.” I would hope I’d be remembered for a legacy of thinking, a legacy of creating a new kind of design practice. It’s cheesy, but I hope we’re helping people engage with creating new models for the 21st century — not one particular product, but a widening of perspective.