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Smarter Than You Think: A Colony Of Viruses

Skylar Tibbits and Arthur Olson’s installation proves intelligent assembly wasn’t invented by Scandinavian designers, but rather million-year-old deadly organisms.
March 19, 2012, 10:00pm

The Self-Assembly Line from Skylar Tibbits on Vimeo.

You've probably heard of TED, the not-for-profit foundation behind global discussions disseminating "ideas worth spreading." The first of two annual conferences went down this past January in Palm Springs, where developers, designers, and scientists exhibited noteworthy installations. One project in particular caught our eye—The Self Assembly Line by Skylar Tibbits (MIT) and Arthur Olson (The Molecular Graphics Lab, The Scripps Research Institute).

The giant interactive sculpture featured in the video is a bit less than hopeful, considering it’s a large scale replica of a self-assembling virus. Inspired by the strange biochemical phenomenon that takes place in some natural organisms (mostly viruses), this project consists of a big hollow structure in perpetual rotation. Inside are smaller magnetic geometrical shapes that assemble when the sculpture gears into action.

Viewers are encouraged to rotate the wheel, deciding for themselves the speed and vector. The experience serves to prove that objects tend to self-assemble when they reach stochastic motion in a self-contained world. On the project's website, the designers explain, "the unit geometry and attraction mechanisms (magnetics) ensure the units will come into contact with one another and auto-align into locally correct configurations."

Although the sculpture doesn't appear to be radically complex, the possible applications are numerous. From architecture—"this installation proposes an alternate view on aggregates as a method for constructing large structures with programmed modules and stochastic energy input"—to science—"the underlying mechanisms that promote self-assembly and the generation of structural complexity from stochastic input are fundamental to our understanding of living systems"—to art and design—"While implementing the known structure of molecular systems, this installation also proposes the implementation of design/engineering to natural phenomena as a hybrid system." The varied uses demonstrate the versatile nature of the sculpture, and we can understand why the duo was so successful at this year’s TED conference.