Animate materials will solve problems, but will they kill us first?

The technology could produce a raft of new and potentially terrifying consequences

Alexandra Chegodaeva, an assistant chief of Promobot research and development department, works on a head of a humanoid robot at the company's branch in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev
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My first encounter with email was through Kermit. The year was 1994 and Kermit was a black-and-white interface, not particularly appealing, but a computing protocol that was effective at transferring files and text from one computer to another.

Columbia University brought Kermit to life in 1981 and ceased hosting him in 2011. Looking back, it would have been impossible to predict the extent to which something like Kermit would impact us and future generations.

Hindsight is good, foresight is hard. But there are different levels of “hard”. It’s possible to imagine, for example, what the world will look like in 2030, when universal internet access is achieved. Predicting this merely involves extending our understanding of today's reality into the future, and should therefore be relatively straightforward.

What is much harder is predicting exactly what will emerge from this shift in global consciousness and hyper-connectedness. And in tandem, how we develop effective policies and regulations that ensure that people do not hurt one another or the planet – or worse.

Anticipating the implications of innovation can often be the difference between life and death

As science fiction author William Gibson put it: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed." So, with that logic, something we can do is simply extend our research networks and seek information from folks with very different views and experiences than our own, in the hope that they know something that we don’t.

One such person to look at would be Robert Boyle, a scientist and inventor of the 1600s. He penned an insightful list of 24 then-unthinkable technologies and discoveries. These included prolonging life, unsinkable ships, organ transplants, sleeping pills and other things, both important and trivial, many of which we nowadays take for granted. All but two of the items on the list have been created or realised in the 300-plus years since.

Today, modern researchers are having another stab at his project. The Royal Society, a fellowship of eminent scientists that was founded by Boyle and his contemporaries, recently centred its attention on animate materials. These materials would have “magical” properties, being able to self-assemble, self-heal and respond to the environment.

FILE PHOTO: Fireworks explode from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, during New Year's Eve celebrations in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 31, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo
Dubai's Museum of the Future will explore questions around how we can plan for the challenges of tomorrow. Reuters

First, it's important to know that, in their ultimate form, they don’t exist yet – they won’t for many more years, even decades. They will very probably exist in the future though, because they may offer important solutions to our consumption conundrums. Animate materials matter because they could help us address an increasing problem in the modern world: what to do with the stuff that we don’t need anymore? If we discovered the secret to this technology, things like plastic bottles could be scheduled to disassemble into their constituent molecules and re-assemble into, say, a toothbrush. Building roads or telephones with animate materials would allow these objects to repair themselves. Imagine a scenario in which bridges, car parts or pacemakers could self-assemble.

They would be materials that we could programme, in ways that we don’t yet understand, to carry out certain functions, much like a machine can execute an algorithm when commanded to do so by computer software, or how a living organism is programmed through its DNA.

With solutions come new challenges and the first one we face with animate materials is pretty straightforward: bringing them into being. For now, they don't exist.

The second challenge is imagining what life in the future, let's say in 2100, will be like once animate materials become as common as plastic bags, telephone chargers or shampoo.

The third challenge is deciding the kinds of policies and regulations we should create to ensure that animate materials do not take over the world, do not become living organisms and only do what we need them to do. Unsurprisingly, we don’t yet possess the knowledge or language to do this. Or rather, we lack sufficient evidence about the future. That is a dangerous shortcoming.

At the dawn of the industrial revolution in the late 1700s, would you have been able to anticipate that the energy that was set to run machines, automate manufacturing and make transport ubiquitous, would also cause climate change? Think of how impossible it would have been to convince others – investors, workers, politicians – to listen, understand and take preventative action against the negative consequences that would plague world 200 years down the line.

NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND - JULY 28: Kermit the Frog performs during the "If I Had A Song" tribute set during day three of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 28, 2019 in Newport, Rhode Island.   Mike Lawrie/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Mike Lawrie / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
Kermit the Frog performs during the 'If I Had A Song' tribute set in Newport, Rhode Island, in 2019. AFP

This is not a theoretical or trivial matter. There are moments in history when individuals hold key information that will shape the future. Anticipating the implications of innovation can often be the difference between life and death.

What we lack in specific knowledge and evidence, we can make up for with imagination. And so, we come back to the science fiction genre. It’s not that these authors know the future – it's more that they help us imagine possibilities about what's in store for us, and therefore prepare. These are precisely the types of ideas that we explore at the Museum of the Future.

As much as I love Kermit – the friendly technology that accompanied me in the early days of my emailing career – I believe that inspiration on how to address the future challenges that are posed by technological development should come from sci-fi, not The Muppet Show.

Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation