Cloud computing has transformed the way we store, share and information, and has inevitably changed the way business is conducted. Now, the cloud is also changing the way we develop tools and collaborate in the design field — from large-scale skyscrapers, to building and programming at the nano-scale. In the new, emergent fields of synthetic biology, nanotechnology and 4D printing where matter is literally “programmed” to execute certain functions under specific conditions, a unified platform of intuitive design tools that work across different scales and disciplines — and which collectively harness the power of the cloud — could be vital for tackling the inherent design and collaborative complexities of such endeavours.
San Rafael, California-based software company Autodesk, arguably best known for its computer-aided design software AutoCAD, is one company that is currently exploring what design tools are needed for this “new industrial revolution.”
Under the auspices of Autodesk’s research group for Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter, the aptly named Project Cyborg was launched last year with the goal of developing a platform of cloud-based tools for modelling, simulation, visualization, and optimization that could be used across different disciplines and scales. The idea behind Project Cyborg is to develop tools and design spaces that people with little familiarity with 3D modelling can use. As Wired UK‘s Tom Vanderbilt puts it, this new revolution will “enable biologists and chemists… to tap into the power of algorithmic design.”
Design Tools for Academics and “Citizen Scientists”
The ramifications of these tools would be enormous, freeing specialists in various fields from the steep learning curve traditionally associated with complex modelling software. Potential applications for the Project Cyborg meta-platform include 3D bioprinting of engineered human tissues and organs. In the growing field of synthetic biology, these customized tools would facilitate the creation of genetically tailored pharmaceuticals that could be sold via a subscription model. Other tools being developed are aimed at creating 4D printed materials that are “programmed” to function and transform a certain way. And of course, let’s bring on the cancer-killing robots. In essence, Project Cyborg aims to lessen labor-intensive tasks and act as a “backbone” for design and development, democratizing design for academics as well as for “citizen scientists.”
We asked Carlos Olguin, head of Autodesk’s Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter research group to give us a few details behind Project Cyborg, and what it’s currently working on.
Kimberley Mok: What is the technology behind Project Cyborg?
Olguin: Cyborg is a commercial, cloud-native, open, modular, platform for programming matter across scales and domains. It provides a modern CAD Shell and a set of Core Services with associated user interfaces for tasks such as simulation and design optimization. An Application Programming Interface complements the CAD Shell and Core Services and enables the specialization to a particular design space. Applications being built on Project Cyborg include those on Synthetic Biology, 3D Bioprinting, 4D Printing, and DNA Nanotechnology.
How is it being developed?
Olguin: Our team (the [Autodesk] Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter group) collaborates with world-class researchers in industry and academia to co-envision and co-implement the design paradigms and tools needed to program matter across domains and scales. Each new collaboration adds to the platform a new pattern or feature that aims to accelerate the growth of an emergent design space. Collaborations include those with researchers at MIT (Skylar Tibbits), UCSF (Shawn Douglas), and University of Edinburgh (Patrick Cai); and also with industry partners such as Airbus.
The bottom line for us is that without the right design tools that can help abstract and de-skill highly complex design spaces, less people will be looking to solve fundamental problems affecting humanity. Better design tools help us better understand a particular domain. Such improved understanding enables even more sophisticated tools and applications to emerge. As this recursive loop between scientific knowledge and design tools goes on, at some point, new economies built around these relatively new domains of knowledge will bloom and help improve our lives in a fundamental way.
As a counter-example, imagine the size of the mobile application market if developers didn’t have sophisticated and intuitive programming languages and IDEs and instead, they could only code in machine language. In many ways this scenario would still be a distant approximation of what it means today to design and program in emergent design spaces such as life itself. To begin with, we don’t even remotely understand in full the ‘machine language’ of life. To finish with, the impact of creating tools to help design, for example, a cancer-curing therapeutic versus the next version of SnapChat on your iPhone is fundamentally different, yet, without democratizing design software for bio/nano/programmable matter, development efforts converge to the second group of applications. We will change that, with the help of many more.
What programming languages is your team using?
How does Project Cyborg relate to, or is different from, other technological developments?
Olguin: Cyborg is a fundamental shift from traditional desktop design and analysis tools. Its web-based, computation-elastic, integrated, multi-tool user experience and APIs enable authoring of specialized workflows for any given design space.
Any current difficulties or obstacles being tackled by the team now?
Olguin: Establishing a sense of focus for such a domain-agnostic platform is not an intuitive task. That’s why we are seeding the overall space with applications that are still a bit disconnected today (e.g. synbio and bioprinting) but tomorrow will fuse, in part because of our work.
What is Project Cyborg doing next?
Olguin: Project Cyborg is currently on a restricted Beta release. We will be opening the beta soon. In addition, we also expect to announce one of the key applications we are building during Autodesk’s user conference in December. It’s a surprise.
An Ambitious Future
We’re eager to see what will emerge from Project Cyborg — Autodesk has already made some partnerships that paints a tantalizing picture of what the future of matter programming and biological engineering and design might look like. It’s teamed up with bioprinter company Organovo in an effort to simplify the process for printing human organs; worked with university researchers to develop Clotho, an application environment for synthetic biology. Autodesk’sBio/Nano/Programmable Matter group even recently 3D printed its own virus earlier this year for an unremarkable $1,000. Manufacturing is poised to be revolutionized with 4D printed products that self-assemble. Architecture won’t be the same either: architects working with biologically-driven designs featuring living organisms, like New York City’s The Living, are allying themselves with Autodesk Research to realize provocative projects that merge technology, biology, culture and design. Ultimately, Autodesk’s expanding range of tools in these nascent industries are ambitiously redefining the scope of design itself, creating unexpected design spaces that will undoubtedly change the way life is built.