“Innovation happens at the intersection of things,” Phelan said. And the intersection he and Cook were most interested in was between old and new, as well as digital and organic.
Programmable matter was the Matrix-like future vision they presented. “Imagine if you could pick up and program absolutely anything. You’ve got a table but want a chair—just reprogram it,” Cook enthused. Sounds a bit out there but that’s the direction emerging technologies in organic, chemical and biological fields are heading.
The two built their case from a series of advances that may seem very small or too niche, but when you put them all together you get a picture of what’s possible. Out of Finland already there is a company working on making packaging from organic materials such as bee’s wax. The look is clean, stylish and rapidly biodegradable. It’s something that can be produced at scale and is just the first step in shaping organic matter to serve a commercial purpose.
Another piece of the puzzle comes from an effort at The University of Western Australia called SymbioticA where biology gets turned into art. And that leads to the idea of bio-fabrication—from sewing to growing. What will happen to the multi-trillion dollar fashion industry when your shirt emerges from a test tube rather than a series of machines and materials?
Cook framed the argument in terms of industrial revolutions. The first was during the Victorian age when humanity learned to master mechanics. The second is now, as we learn to industrialize information. And the third will be when we come to understand how to industrialize biology at scale.
The implications for producing, delivering and marketing the products that come from such processes will have far reaching effects on every industry, including ours.
In the SapientNitro vision, the lasting impact of the current digital age will be that the world around us should be (and will be) programmable. And Cook urged the audience to go out and learn how to code, likening it to moving from a 2D to 3D understanding of the world around you.