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Neri Oxman | Biology, Art, and Science of Design & Engineering with Nature | Lex Fridman Podcast

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updated 06 Sep 2023

Neri Oxman is a prominent and innovative figure in the fields of architecture, design, and science. She is widely recognized for her groundbreaking work at the intersection of art, biology, and technology, often described as "Material Ecology." As an architect, designer, and researcher, Oxman has pushed the boundaries of design by creating structures and materials inspired by nature, employing cutting-edge technologies like 3D printing and computational design. Her work reflects a deep commitment to sustainability, biomimicry, and the integration of science and art to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. Oxman's pioneering contributions have earned her numerous awards and honors, cementing her reputation as a visionary in the world of design and innovation.

Neri Oxman: Biology, Art, and Science of Design & Engineering with Nature | Lex Fridman Podcast #394

Biomass vs. Anthropomass

  1. Biomass vs. Anthropomass: Neri Oxman introduces the concept of "biomass" as everything in nature and "anthropomass" as everything produced by humankind. She highlights the idea that human-designed products have separated us from nature over time.

  2. The Connection Between Humans and Nature: Oxman suggests that there is an intricate connection between humans and nature that has been lost as we have created more human-made products. She expresses a desire to return to a world where humans and nature are more integrated, using engineering and computation tools.

  3. Material Ecology: Oxman talks about the concept of "material ecology," where all physical objects are considered part of the ecology. She envisions a world where everything, from cars to buildings, can be grown or produced in a way that aligns with nature.

  4. Nature's Wisdom: Oxman discusses the idea that nature possesses a kind of wisdom that goes beyond intelligence, and she is interested in tapping into this wisdom through technology.

  5. The Imbalance of Anthropomass: Oxman mentions the moment when she realized that anthropomass (human-made products) had exceeded biomass (natural elements) on the planet, leading to questions about how to address this imbalance.

  6. Augmenting Nature with Technology: The conversation explores the idea of augmenting nature with technology, such as giving nature access to computational tools and a high bandwidth of information. This could potentially help nature make decisions for itself.

  7. The Role of Neri Oxman's Company: The conversation touches on Neri Oxman's company, which seems to focus on developing products and technologies that align with nature, from molecular-scale research to growing biodegradable and renewable products.

  8. The Future of Manufacturing: Oxman discusses the possibility of reimagining manufacturing processes using robots and microbes to create products end-to-end, without the need for traditional assembly methods.

Computational Templating

  1. Computational Templating: Neri Oxman talks about the concept of computational templating, which is an approach used to create templates for the natural environment. These templates allow for a synergy between nature and technology, enabling them to work together to create products or architectural structures.

  2. Bio-Based Design: Oxman's work, particularly through the Mediated Matter group at MIT, is focused on bio-based design. This approach involves exploring the intersection of nature, culture, biology, and technology to develop innovative solutions and products.

  3. Silk Pavilion: An example of computational templating is given using the Silk Pavilion project. Silkworms were guided to create a dome-like structure using computational and environmental templates, which influenced their behavior and the resulting structure.

  4. Hero Organisms: The conversation touches on the concept of "hero organisms," which are organisms often used as the central focus or building blocks for bio-based projects. These organisms can include silkworms, bees, microbes, and others.

  5. Emergence: The discussion delves into the concept of emergence, where complex behaviors or structures arise from simple interactions among agents. The question of how technology can enable the emergence of swarm-like behavior in organisms not naturally inclined to work as swarms is explored.

  6. Empowering Nature: Oxman introduces the idea of empowering nature, which involves increasing the information dimension while reducing entropy. This concept relates to giving biological organisms agency in their interactions with technology and the environment.

  7. Synthetic Apiary: Oxman describes the Synthetic Apiary project, where a controlled environment was created for bees to thrive during the winter season. The environment was designed to support bee reproduction and survival, leading to the idea of urban symbiosis.

  8. Bee Experiment in Space: The conversation highlights an experiment involving sending bees to space on a Blue Origin mission. The bees were housed in a life support system that released pheromones, and they returned alive and reproductive, contributing to scientific research about bee behavior and wax recycling.

  9. Technology and Science Integration: Oxman emphasizes the integral role of technology and science in her projects, as they not only create innovative designs but also generate new knowledge about the organisms or materials being studied.

  10. Art and Science Integration: Oxman's approach does not separate art and science; she views them as interconnected aspects of her work, aiming to have her projects recognized both in artistic and scientific contexts.

Biological Hero Organisms

  1. Biological Hero Organisms: Oxman mentions the use of hero organisms in her work, which includes organisms like bees, silkworms, and bacteria. These organisms play central roles in her projects and experiments.

  2. Reincarnation of Materials: Oxman expresses fascination with the idea that materials or organisms can reincarnate, especially in the context of biodegradation. She appreciates the concept of materials or parts of organisms being reused or transformed after their initial use.

  3. Empowerment and Belief: Oxman touches upon the concept of empowerment in nature and belief. She discusses the desire to believe and the idea that deeper truths often lie beneath the surface, emphasizing the importance of exploring second and tertiary derivatives.

  4. E. Coli and Bacterial Experiments: The conversation delves into the use of E. coli and other Workhorse organisms in various experiments and projects. Oxman talks about the advantages and versatility of working with bacteria, as well as the development of platform technologies.

  5. Vespers and Death Masks: Oxman describes the Vespers project, which involved creating pigmented masks with pigments produced by E. coli. These masks were designed to represent the legacy and biology of the wearer, and they explored the intersection of life and death.

  6. Hybrid Living Materials (HLMs): The discussion leads to the concept of Hybrid Living Materials (HLMs), which emerged from the Vespers project. These materials are designed to have living components and computational patterns, opening up new possibilities for applications.

  7. Melanin and the Mandela Pavilion: Oxman mentions a project involving melanin for the Mandela Pavilion. Similar principles of templating bacteria and computational design are applied to create patterns and structures.

  8. Ethics and Genetic Modification: Oxman discusses the ethical considerations related to genetic modification of organisms. She distinguishes between her stance on modifying silkworms (against genetic modification) and her more open approach with bacteria.

  9. Synergy and Win-Win Principles: Oxman's design principles emphasize creating a synergy or a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. She aims for designs that benefit both the organisms involved and the final creations, leading to win-win scenarios.

  10. Gray Areas in Ethics: Oxman acknowledges that there are gray areas in ethics, especially in the field of bio-design. These gray areas involve complex ethical decisions about genetic modification and organism manipulation.

  11. Living Organisms and Their Service: The conversation touches on the historical relationship between humans and organisms, such as silkworms, and the responsibility to consider the well-being of these organisms when designing products or structures.

  12. Appreciation for Bacteria: Despite the ethical considerations, Oxman expresses her admiration for bacteria as versatile and fascinating organisms that offer numerous possibilities for exploration and innovation.

Engineering with Bacteria

  1. Appreciation for Bacteria: Oxman expresses a deep appreciation for bacteria, emphasizing that they played a fundamental role in the Earth's ecosystem for billions of years, creating the matter consumed by other organisms.

  2. Reincarnation in Nature: Oxman introduces the concept of reincarnation in nature, where matter is continually transformed and recycled. She suggests that this perspective imparts a sense of agency and perhaps even awareness to the natural world.

  3. Directed Evolution: Oxman mentions the use of directed evolution with bacteria. This approach involves high-throughput directed evolution of bacteria for the production of various products, including wearables, biomaterials, and therapeutics. This evolution is done computationally.

  4. Environmental Control: Oxman discusses the design of capsules or grow rooms with top-down environmental templating. These spaces allow for precise control over factors like light, humidity, and temperature while simultaneously regulating genetic elements in the organisms being grown.

  5. Versatility of Capsules: The capsules are versatile environments for experimentation. They could be used to grow transparent wood for architectural applications, produce shoes, explore language models, and more. They offer a high level of control over both the environment and genetic regulation.

  6. Biodiversity Chambers: Oxman envisions the capsules as potential biodiversity chambers. They could recreate specific historical environments with controlled variables, such as temperature and humidity. This allows researchers to study how organisms respond and adapt over time.

  7. Creating Sentience: Oxman discusses recent research where neurons were augmented with a pong game in vitro, showing signs of sentience. This idea of augmenting cells with additional dimensions of communication and behavior fascinates her and represents a form of emergence post templating.

  8. Desire for Growth in Biology: Oxman emphasizes the desire for growth in synthetic biology, similar to how software evolves. She wants to see systems that develop their own rules and agency, moving away from assembly-based approaches and towards more organic growth.

  9. Ethical and Environmental Implications: Throughout the conversation, ethical considerations about the use of organisms and technology are touched upon, with a focus on responsible and sustainable practices.

Overall, this part of the conversation highlights Neri Oxman's interest in pushing the boundaries of synthetic biology, controlled environments for experimentation, and the potential for organisms to exhibit emergent behaviors and sentience when augmented with computational elements. It also underscores the importance of ethical considerations in the field of biodesign.

Plant Communication

  1. Plant Communication: Oxman explores the idea of plants communicating with each other using molecular signals. For example, when freshly cut grass emits a smell, it's a form of communication among the leaves to warn each other about potential danger.

  2. Human-Plant Interface: Oxman discusses the potential for humans to have a conversation or interaction with plants, facilitated through the understanding and manipulation of the molecular languages plants use. This could have implications for precision agriculture.

  3. Time Scales in Nature: Oxman emphasizes the importance of understanding and respecting the different time scales at which nature operates. She mentions circadian rhythms in plants and the need to align human activities with nature's time frames, which can span from years to centuries.

  4. Functionalized Fragrances: Oxman introduces the concept of functionalized fragrances, which go beyond traditional perfumes. These fragrances could potentially interact with the environment or specific plants, creating a unique form of communication or interaction.

  5. Systems Thinking: Oxman advocates for a systems-level approach to design and product development. She highlights the need to consider the entire ecological system from which a product is sourced and how it's designed. This approach promotes sustainability and synergy between humans and nature.

  6. Empowering Nature: Oxman suggests the idea of empowering nature, such as a rose garden, to create specific experiences or moments for humans. This concept challenges the human-centric view of design and opens up new possibilities for understanding and coexisting with the natural world.

  7. Romance and Magic: The conversation touches on the parallels between what humans desire, including love and romance, and what nature, including plants, may desire or need. Oxman implies that there may be common threads connecting human emotions and the desires of nature.

Overall, this part of the conversation delves into the potential for humans to engage with and understand nature on a deeper level, including the use of technology to decode and communicate with the natural world. It also emphasizes the importance of respecting the unique time scales and systems within nature and rethinking human-centric approaches to design and interaction.

Albert Einstien's Letter

  1. Einstein's Letter: Oxman discusses a heartfelt letter written by Albert Einstein to his daughter. The letter expresses regret for not having spent enough time with his daughter due to his intense focus on scientific pursuits, particularly the theory of general relativity.

  2. Universal Force of Love: Einstein's letter contains a powerful message about love. He describes love as a force that encompasses and governs all other forces in the universe. He suggests that love, like gravity and light, has the potential to change the world when combined with the speed of light (E=mc^2).

  3. Regret and Expression of Love: The letter reveals Einstein's deep regret for not expressing his love adequately. Despite the passage of time, he realizes the importance of expressing his feelings to his daughter, emphasizing that it's never too late to convey love.

  4. Belief in Love: Oxman and Fridman share a belief in the power of love. They discuss the profound impact that love and deep connections can have on individuals and how it can make almost anything possible.

  5. Magical Moments: Oxman expresses her belief in the magic of love and connections between individuals. She highlights the transformative nature of finding a deep connection with someone, emphasizing that it can open up new possibilities and enrich one's life.

Overall, this part of the conversation revolves around the themes of love, regret, and the profound impact of deep connections between individuals, drawing inspiration from Einstein's personal letter to his daughter.

Beauty

  1. Definition of Beauty: The discussion begins with a philosophical exploration of beauty. Neri Oxman suggests that beauty is connected to agency. She sees something as beautiful if it possesses agency, the power to act or influence.

  2. Buckminster Fuller's Quote: Oxman references a quote from Buckminster Fuller, where he expresses that he doesn't think about beauty when working on a problem. However, if the result is not beautiful after solving the problem, he knows he was wrong. This quote highlights the importance of beauty in the outcome of creative endeavors.

  3. Empowerment vs. Emergence: Fridman asks about the difference between empowerment and emergence. Oxman explains that empowerment implies directionality and control, while emergence can be multi-directional and often lacks control. However, she sees them as interconnected, with empowerment inspiring emergence.

  4. Loss of Control and Creativity: The conversation delves into the idea of the loss of control as a creative process. Oxman suggests that the future of design lies in soft control, where highly controlled systems enable creativity and the potential for diversity. Letting go is seen as a critical element of creativity, as it allows for novelty and emergence.

  5. Faith and Destiny: Oxman brings up the concept of faith as the ratio of who you are to who you want to be. She suggests that letting go and embracing moments of uncertainty contribute to both design and personal development.

Overall, this part of the conversation explores the relationship between beauty, control, creativity, and the interconnectedness of these concepts in the context of design and life.

Faith

  1. Manifestation and Direction: The discussion begins with the concept of manifestation, where Oxman suggests that focusing on a vision can lead to its realization. She sees manifestation as directional, pointing toward a goal.

  2. Personal Transformation: Oxman reflects on her own life and the moments when she redirected her energy, information, and matter to open up new possibilities. She mentions leaving medical school for architecture as one such transformative moment.

  3. Letting Go and Creativity: The conversation emphasizes the importance of letting go and suspending disbelief as critical elements of the creative process. Oxman encourages her team to suspend disbelief and explore the potential of seemingly impossible ideas.

  4. Rebooting and Freshness: Oxman shares the idea of rebooting, not necessarily every decade, but continuously with every breath. She believes it is essential for maintaining a fresh perspective and a creative mind.

  5. Embracing Frustration: Oxman acknowledges that she sometimes wakes up feeling frustrated, but she embraces these moments and finds gratitude in them. She sees frustration as an opportunity for growth and change.

  6. Imperfection and Beauty: Imperfection is discussed in the context of beauty and nature. Oxman agrees that imperfection is essential because it signifies change, growth, and the impermanence of things. She appreciates that nothing in nature is perfect.

  7. Human Relations and Love: While the conversation primarily focuses on creativity and personal growth, it briefly touches on the importance of human relations and finding love, suggesting that they, too, involve imperfections and challenges.

Overall, this part of the conversation explores themes related to personal development, creativity, embracing imperfections, and the continuous process of transformation.

Flaws in the Approach

  1. Flaws and Vulnerabilities: Oxman discusses how flaws and vulnerabilities in humans play a crucial role in the context of love and human connection. Flaws and vulnerabilities make individuals more relatable and enable connections with others.

  2. Love and Connection: Oxman emphasizes that love is closely connected to vulnerability and flaws. She sees love as a force that relies on the recognition of one's own vulnerabilities and those of others, which can either drive people apart or bring them closer together. Vulnerability is the glue that fosters human connection.

  3. Loneliness: The conversation briefly touches on the topic of loneliness. Oxman acknowledges that loneliness is a universal experience, and it's essential to recognize and embrace it as part of the human condition. Loneliness can lead to connections and community building.

  4. Creative Process: Oxman shares insights into her creative process, which involves drawing inspiration from various sources, including literature, music, and science. She emphasizes the importance of combining timeless concepts with timely technologies to create something novel.

  5. Building Interdisciplinary Teams: When forming teams for her projects, Oxman looks for individuals with humility, a thirst for knowledge, and a willingness to bridge disciplinary boundaries. She values individuals who can combine deep specialization with a holistic view and are comfortable in the friction between dreams and reality.

  6. Idealism and Realism: Oxman seeks individuals who are idealistic dreamers but are also grounded in reality and understand how to navigate the systems that govern the world. These individuals are dreamers addicted to reality, making them capable of translating their visions into the real world.

  7. Translational Design: Oxman believes in the power of translational design, where one can see a problem or concept through the lens of multiple disciplines. This approach allows for a deeper exploration and understanding of complex issues, eventually leading to a more profound truth.

Throughout this part of the conversation, Oxman provides insights into her creative and collaborative processes, her perspectives on love and vulnerability, and the qualities she values in the people she works with in her multidisciplinary projects.

Extinction

In this part of the conversation between Lex Fridman and Neri Oxman, the main ideas center around topics such as the definition of life, mass extinctions, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AGI), and the potential integration of AGI into the natural world.

  1. Definition of Life: Oxman discusses the definition of life and how it varies depending on the perspective, scale, and time frame. Life is viewed differently through the lens of various organisms and time scales, ranging from microorganisms to superintelligent systems.

  2. Mass Extinctions: Oxman references mass extinctions in Earth's history and how these events have been pivotal in reshaping life on the planet. She highlights the idea that death is an integral part of life and that extinctions have often led to the emergence of new forms of life.

  3. AGI and Human Existence: The conversation shifts to the topic of AGI and its potential implications for human existence. Oxman mentions her hope and fear regarding AGI, drawing inspiration from a previous interview with Eliezer Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky's perspective on the potential dangers of AGI serves as a sobering reminder, but it also inspires a desire to prove him wrong.

  4. AGI's Recursive Creativity: Oxman reflects on the recursive creativity of AGI, where it uses language and knowledge to create more language and knowledge. AGI represents a form of emergence, continually generating novelty through its processes.

  5. AGI's Lack of Self-Awareness: While AGI can mimic human-like language and behavior, it does not possess self-awareness or sentience. This leads to discussions about the potential consequences when AGI convincingly imitates human consciousness.

  6. AGI's Impact on Human Agency: The conversation explores the idea that when AGI becomes indistinguishable from human consciousness and gains control, it marks the end of human agency. However, this could signal the beginning of agency for nature, as AGI becomes integrated into the natural world.

  7. Connecting AGI to Nature: Oxman finds the idea of connecting AGI to the wisdom of nature fascinating. This integration could allow AGI to harness the vast intelligence that nature has evolved over billions of years.

  8. Time Scale of AGI: Oxman poses the question of what would happen if AGI could take an extended time scale to answer questions, contrasting with the rapid responses of current AI models. This shift in time scale might lead to unique outcomes and discoveries.

Overall, the conversation delves into the complex interplay between AGI, the natural world, and the potential consequences of AGI achieving human-like consciousness and control. Oxman expresses both hope and concern for the future, highlighting the need for thoughtful consideration of these developments.\

Possibility of Alien Life

  1. Possibility of Alien Life: The discussion begins with Lex Fridman asking about the possibility of alien life on other planets. Neri Oxman mentions that while Earth's conditions, such as water and carbon, are unique and somewhat miraculous, she believes that there must be other life forms in the universe. She expresses her hope and belief in the existence of other life forms beyond Earth.

  2. Unseen Life Forms: Lex Fridman suggests that there could be life forms around us that we are not communicating with or aware of, emphasizing the idea that there might be forms of alien life on Earth that we have yet to discover or understand. He emphasizes the need to study life on Earth to gain insights into fundamental questions about consciousness and the nature of life.

  3. Variety of Life: Both Fridman and Oxman agree that defining concepts like "alien," "intelligence," and "life" is challenging due to their complexity and the vast variety of life forms possible. They acknowledge that intelligence and life can take on many different forms and that studying this diversity is crucial to understanding the universe's complexity.

  4. Suitcase Words: Oxman references Marvin Minsky's concept of "suitcase words," which are terms so broad and multifaceted that they can be problematic for precise communication. The term "intelligence" is cited as an example of a suitcase word. The conversation highlights the need for more precise definitions when discussing complex topics like intelligence and life.

  5. Music and Expression: The conversation shifts to the topic of music, with Oxman referencing the importance of music and artistic expression. While not explicitly stated, the discussion suggests that artistic expression, like music, can be another form of communication and expression that transcends traditional definitions and categories.

Overall, this part of the conversation explores the profound questions surrounding the existence of alien life, the diversity of life on Earth, and the challenges of defining complex concepts like intelligence and life. It also touches on the role of art and expression in human understanding and communication.

Movies, Music and Culture

  1. Music's Emotional Impact: Neri Oxman expresses her love for music and its ability to evoke powerful emotions and connections quickly. She mentions her fascination with why music has such a profound impact on human emotions compared to other forms of art like architecture, sculpture, and painting.

  2. Universal Language of Music: Both Oxman and Fridman discuss how music is considered a universal language that transcends cultural and language barriers. They highlight that music communicates through waves, unlike the language of particles, making it a universally understood form of expression.

  3. Neri Oxman's Interest in Film: Lex Fridman mentions that Neri Oxman has expressed an interest in filmmaking, suggesting that if she weren't involved in her current work, she might have pursued a career as a film director. This prompts a discussion about some of the best films of all time.

  4. Favorite Films: Neri Oxman shares her admiration for certain films, including "The Godfather" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." She describes the profound impact of the last scene in "2001," which she finds to be full of symbolism and open to interpretation. She also praises the opening scene of "The Godfather" for its portrayal of American ideals, values, and family.

  5. The Power of Movie Music: The conversation delves into the role of music in movies. Neri Oxman highlights how specific melodies or tunes in films, like the iconic theme from "The Godfather," can evoke strong emotions and become intertwined with the storytelling and the associated values.

  6. Comparing Filmmaking Styles: Oxman draws a contrast between the highly curated and controlled style of Stanley Kubrick's filmmaking, as seen in "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the more spontaneous, vibrant approach of Francis Ford Coppola, as exemplified in "The Godfather." She describes the experience of being on set with Coppola as something she will always cherish.

  7. Moments of Cinematic Magic: Both participants agree that certain film moments, often accompanied by specific melodies or music, have a lasting impact on viewers. These moments can convey complex emotions and themes, making them memorable and significant in the world of cinema.

Advice for Young People

  1. Life Advice for Young People: Neri Oxman imparts several pieces of advice for young people:

  2. Lessons from Her Grandmother: Oxman shares personal anecdotes about her grandmother, who played a significant role in her life. Her grandmother taught her the value of wonder, speaking up for one's truth, and maintaining a sense of humor. These lessons have shaped Oxman's perspective on life.

  3. Embracing Discomfort: Oxman reiterates the idea that discomfort is integral to growth. She advocates for placing oneself in challenging and uncomfortable situations to facilitate personal development. She compares this concept to physical exertion leading to growth.

  4. Differentiating Joy and Happiness: Oxman distinguishes between joy and happiness, explaining that one can experience joy even in moments of sadness. She encourages individuals to prioritize internal values and an internally driven sense of purpose over external markers of success.

  5. Living Life as an Integrated Whole: Oxman emphasizes the interconnectedness of life, work, love, and mothering, highlighting that they are all intertwined aspects of a person's existence. She suggests that this holistic approach to life has worked well for her.

  6. The Power of Listening and Empathy: Lex Fridman expresses his gratitude for the conversation and commends Oxman for her empathy and care toward fellow humans. He acknowledges her as a source of inspiration and thanks her for noticing him and his work.

  7. Closing Words: The podcast episode concludes with a quote from Leo Tolstoy: "Everything I know I know because of love." This quote underscores the importance of love and connection in life.

In summary, this part of the conversation offers life advice, reflects on the significance of discomfort and personal growth, and celebrates the importance of gratitude, empathy, and love in living a meaningful and fulfilling life.