Ars Electronica Festival 2017

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A robot stops walking in response to a barrier (hand) placed in its path at ARS Electronica Festival 2017.

Growing up as a kid, the question was always whether you went into science or art. It was this weird dichotomy in learning, where there was the precision and quantitative of math, biology, chemistry, and physics, and then the interpretative and creative of art, music, language, and history. Two ways to understand the world standing in opposite sides and never mixing, like students at their first middle school dance.

I understand now that this separation is artificial and that the skills needed in each field intermingle – there is creativity in science, and precision in art – but the world seems to still cling to that science-art dichotomy, where ne’er the two spheres shall meet. After all, we don’t often talk of the exacting quantitative precision of the artist’s work, nor do we speak of the creative interpretations of the biologist’s findings. But why? Why don’t we more often unite these two disparate worlds, or acknowledge that the separation is artificial and never really existed at all?

For me and anyone who has ever had this thought, Ars Electronica is the dreamland you never knew existed, where the artificial barriers between art and science dissolve. It’s a year-round museum in Linz, Austria, but every fall Ars Electronica hosts a festival showcasing the creations that arise from the fusion of art and science. Here science and technology create art and history, and art and history build science and technology. From synchronized drone aerobatics to temporary electro-conductive arm tattoos that control your smartphone, the ARS Electronica Festival is four days of wonder, thought, and inspiration. Here’s what we captured in our visit*:

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Repurposing of industrial robot arms for shadowplay art.
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Doge overlooks a cryptocurrency gathering.
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The LightSail II in the Linz Cathedral, an interactive mesh-and-PVC pipe construction the size of a whale that responds to touch by varying sounds and projected images.
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The crowd in the basement of POST CITY for the Ars Electronica Festival Concert.
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A robot constructs a three-towered sculpture for nothing but concrete chips and string, while its creators look on from the right.
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RFID-reflective clothing, meant to protect your identity in the wireless future.
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A demonstration of DuoSkinDuoSkin, conductive temporary tattoos that enable you to control your smartphone or other electronic devices. Here, a man demonstrates skipping songs and changing the volume on a phone’s music playlist.
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A man reloads markers on an industrial robot arm repurposed for sketching.
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A woman interacts with a display that explores the ability of machines to read and respond to human needs.
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An artist explains his interactive darkroom-and-flashlight display.
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Visitors watch and film a synchronized drone show.
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Attendees at the festival’s seminars, which explore everything from the ethics and law of AI to art created from AI learning.

And a couple of videos:

It can be a little overwhelming to visit the ARS Electronica Festival for the first time, so here are some useful tips to help you get around:

  1. Trust but verify – we sometimes got mixed answers from volunteers as to where/when things were happening. Ask a few people to get a good idea of when/where the big events are.
  2. English speakers welcome – Many of the most fascinating events are in Austrian, but they offer free real-time translations! Grab a pair of headphones on the way into the room, or ask a volunteer on hand if they have any.
  3. Don’t buy a metro pass – Your ARS pass includes free travel on some of the city’s trams, at least from the Linz Train Station to the ARS Electronica Museum and back. (Applicable to full festival pass, not sure about 1-day passes)
  4. The ARS Electronica Concert is amazing – The concert runs late into the night and you might be tempted to skip it if you’re relying on the train to get home. Go for at least a few hours because it’s amazing and absolutely worth it. Tickets are free with the 4-day pass and can be picked up at the ticketing/info booth area in Post City.
  5. Leave time to explore – While most of the events are focused in Post City, there are events throughout Linz for ARS Electronica. Leave time to see those and to wander around Post City without any direction, because stumbling onto something unexpectedly can be thought-transforming.

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* I understand copyright law is a bit more strict in Europe, so if you’re an artist or copyright owner whose work is listed above and want it taken down, please email me.

Synthetic Biology and Social Discomfort

On the way home from mushroom hunting, someone in the foraging group asks what I do for a living. That’s a tricky question. I could respond with the research I did for my PhD, which would be something like “biology” or “bioengineering” or “synthetic biology”, but none of these answers hold much meaning for people. So I go for the simplest answer that’s interesting. I tell them, “I built life.”

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Some of the living things I’ve built. 

I’m not exaggerating. My PhD was five and a half years working on engineering organisms that would improve human lives while using less of Earth’s resources. That goal is hundreds of separate projects in several lifetimes of work, so I focused on the part that serves as a lynchpin to them all: if we create a living thing with a function, how do we ensure it works as intended in complex environments? Like the plastic insulation protecting electrical wires, engineered life needs an isolating barrier protecting it from the surrounding natural life that could cause a short-circuit and stop working. Physical isolation tools exist, but they need to be maintained and have limited use. So for my PhD I engineered genetic isolation directly into cells, an insulation that they always carry with them. This genetic insulation protects the engineered cells from nature and vice-versa. And it means that we can one day use these engineered cells to create medicines, renewable energy sources, and environmental protection and repair systems.

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A forest in Australia. It’s one of the many ecosystems I hope to preserve by creating living tools that help people live with more while taking from the environment less.

Back in the car, the response I get from the group is a mix of awe and horror, which is normal. Because I’m with a group of foragers, I can accurately predict the next step in the conversation. “It is just my opinion, but I don’t think we should be changing life, messing with it,” says the man beside me. I nod politely. Though the old knowledge of traditional cultures and new knowledge of academic research are entirely compatible and built on the same scientific methods, a mutual distain keeps the practitioners of these two camps aligned against each other. As scientist of academic research, the key here is not to respond with my first instinct, which is defensiveness and exhausted exasperation. I’ve lived this conversation a thousand times already. But it’s an important one, and it’s not about me convincing this guy that his opinion is wrong. It’s about understanding why.

By and large, people are uncomfortable with engineering life because they consider it special. We divide the world into living and non-living, and then spend much of our memorable lives interacting with the living: family, friends, pets, nature, food. We consider there to be some mysterious spark to life that we haven’t figured out, both philosophically and scientifically (although we’re getting closer – Wired Linkout). To say you’re changing living things naturally raises hackles; the assumption is that in order to do that, you must have sacrificed your belief in the sanctity of life. That you don’t care about the consequences. Or, as quoted from Jurassic Park: “so preoccupied with whether or not [you] could, [you] didn’t stop to think if [you] should.”

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Life is pernicious and controlling it can be hard: here, algae grows on the inside of a plastic cup on the beach.

But the truth is that we scientists think constantly about “whether you should.” It is the undocumented part of our lives, the part spent away from the laboratory equipment that everyone associates with us. In this time, four sources prompt us to consider the meaning and significance of our work. The first is from ourselves; as we’re naturally inclined to think (and overthink), we find ourselves imagining scenarios in which our research could be misused or go awry. The second is our peers and colleagues, who carry a mandate to question our work and ensure it is safe. The third is in grant proposals, where we meet the scrutiny of scientists and policy-makers who fund our work. And the fourth is in scenarios like the one occurring right now in the car, questions from our communities. Every one of these sources drives us to think about the impacts of our research and what could go wrong.

Yes, the conversations I have with people about my work “building life” can be uncomfortable. It’s not fun when someone tells you that your life’s work is objectionable, distasteful, an affront to society, or a one-way ticket to hell. But these conversations are important. They tell me what people are worried about, and by extension, what I should worry about in my work. These conversations are also a brief chance for me to explain how much we scientists care about the impact of our work, contrary to the scientist stereotypes. It’s not easy, but somebody’s gotta do it.

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My research on creating genetic insulation for engineered organisms. If you leave here with one thing, know that we scientists hear and share your fears. It’s why we do research.