Microbial Mediations: Cyber-Biological Extensions of Human Sensitivity to Natural and Made Ecologies

SMArchS Thesis, Computation, Spring 2015

As natural and human made environments become increasingly monitored and modulated by embedded digital technologies, we are presented with a staggering flow of information reverberating between the scales of the made, the grown, and ourselves. In this thesis, I use a series of projects that I developed during my time at MIT as cases for interrogating the material, computational, and biological architecture mediating this information.

Common to these projects is the aim of creating a novel type of cyber-physical system which I call a cyber-biological system, utilizing networks of microbes as natural and programmed agents, with distributed sensing, computation, processing, and actuating abilities. In these projects, the microbiome figures as an enabling substrate for the extension of our sensitivity to natural ecosystems (Waterfly), the built urban environment (Underworlds), and our bodies (Everybiome). My analysis of these projects culminates with ideas for future research (Bio-Homeostat, 3D printed bioreactors). This work points towards creative interventions in the way we approach what I theorize as the instantiation of a hybridized ecology between the made and the natural.

Through my critical analysis of these projects, I aspire to crystallize a design attitude towards creating sensitivity to environments and to juxtapose it with a design attitude of optimization-oriented problem solving. Ultimately, I aim to contribute an interdisciplinary synthesis of a scientific paradigm that is emerging in the domain of biological engineering to inform contemporary practices of how we design technologies that extend the reach of our senses to the important phenomena in our hybridizing made and natural world.