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January 19th, 2009
What is more intimate to each person than the very skin of the body - the sensuous touch, taste and smell of our skin? The skin, visible and exposed, displays our character and emotions. Yet, it is hidden and private as it covers the curves and creases of our bodies and responds to each breath, sigh and quiver. While skin has sensory characteristics, we forget that it is an organ and serves a precise function of our physiology, without which we could not exist in our current biological form. Skin is also vulnerable to the environment as diseases such as basal cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma are on the rise. Even though our skin has protected us for eons, now we must protect our skin. How can we use applicable technology and visionary science to protect our skin while still maintaining its integrity as an intimate part of our identity, our presence in the world, and our experience of the world around us?
It seems paradoxical that the intimacy and sensuality of skin could be preserved in hard mechanics. But it is possible in smart skin , a bio-synthetic fabric that would maintain and enhance essential characteristics of the skin's membrane. Here the smart skin's outer sheath would be composed of assembled molecular cytes or cells connected together to form the outer fabric of the body. The smart skin would be engineered to repair, remake, and replace itself. It would contain nanorobots throughout the epidermal and dermis to communicate with the brain to determine the texture and tone of its surface. The smart skin would transmit enhanced sensory data to the brain on an ongoing basis. It would be aided by artificial intelligent agents to learn how and when to renew itself, alert the outside world of the disposition of the person, or maintain individual privacy; give specific degrees of the body's temperature from moment to moment; and reflect symbols, images, colors and textures across its contours. The smart skin would be able to relate the percentages of toxins in the environment and the extract radiation effects of the sun.
The idea of transformative, smart skin suggests a fitting use of the syncretization of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive and neuro science (NBIC). NBIC's integration methodology is anything but biologically and sensorially human. NBIC is a far cry from the biological touch, taste and smell of our skin because it suggests a cold, mechanical and invasive integration. While the cognitive and neuro sciences are a bit more familiar from a biological viewpoint, they too suggest tampering with our thoughts and probing our privacy. Nonetheless, the enhancement of our human skin is not only lifesaving; it offers new textures, sensations and smells which will have their own sensorial capabilities.
The skin's membrane is a virtual zoo. It is populated with thousands of diverse assortments of bacteria. Using a powerful new molecular method, researchers have found evidence for 182 species of bacteria in normal skin and approximately 71.4% of the total number of bacterial species was different from person to person. In light of this, perhaps injecting the body with nanorobots may not seem so invasive and may even be beneficial—perhaps as beneficial, if not more, than the microbes who live on us.
We could ask ourselves if integrating with other types of elements, such as bacteria, is natural. We might question if it would it be natural to integrate with other types of elements that are non-biological, or if it will be crucial, and thus considered natural, for us to integrate with other types of elements such as nanorobots, information agents, and other electronically and chemically charged agents that could have developed a mutually beneficial interaction, later evolving in an obligatory symbiosis.
What does this mean for designers and media artists? From the perspective of my own artistic practice, it means that it is natural that humans integrate with other types of organisms, that we will evolve with other types of systems, and that this evolution is essential for our future. How does this affect our work as artists? It offers challenges in learning about new fields, new tools, and new worldviews. It also offers new ways of integrating, communicating, assisting, repairing, enhancing, extending, upgrading, and uploading our minds into non-biological platforms. It offers challenges in how we address the discontinuities in the human knowledge base which has left us, as a species, having to build new knowledge - new fields of inquiry and investigation: to share common understanding of the structure of information among artists in a continuous revisiting and reassessment of what we do know and what we might know about our future.
The exploratory experimentation and manipulation of biological life systems, from single cells to organisms, is increasingly drawing attention to transdisciplinary practice and theory in the arts and sciences. As noted, some practices have reached far into the uncomfortable zone of bioengineering and genetics, where science and medicine reside, in aptly creating bio-experiments and offering opinions on the meaning of life. On another side of the creative spectrum, exploratory creations with nanotechnological particles have become a molecular vehicle for establishing artistic practice and theory. The transformative human arises when we combine biodesign and nanodesign. The practice and theory concerning the scope of human enhancement is, I suggest, located at the transformative human. This becomes a projected "media art/science and design" field concerning human futures, especially for the purpose of radical life extension. And, in one sentence, the most appropriate and required tools are found in the nano-bio-info-cogno quartet.
Skin is the first organ to be cloned, engineered and grown; it will also be transformed through AGI and nanotechnology. Perhaps this enhancement and morphing might be a matter of human vanity, or perhaps it might be a matter of our human survival. In either case, it is a stunning concept to consider how the nano-bio-info-cogno quartet will help us maintain our health and happiness in protecting the very membrane which has for so many thousands of years protected us - our skin.