When most people think of cyborgs they think of edgy science-fiction/fantasy creatures, the stuff of futuristic action movies. Berkeley’s Michel Maharbiz has a different thought: “I can make one of those!” At his lab, Professor Mahabiz successfully hacked a Nintendo Wii remote and used it to fly a cyborg beetle, but we will let him tell you all about it…
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a scientist?
Science fiction. I would love to say something more societally conscious, but the truth is that I grew up consuming vast amounts of Asimov, Heinlein, Gibson, etc., and dreamed of finding aliens on gas giants or building intelligent robots or hacking the computers that launched nuclear missiles (depending on what year we are talking about). I loved robots, but I initially loved biology more. At an early age, it became obvious to me that we were machines, just built differently and I wanted to know how we were built. I remember being very frustrated by this, too. My mom often dropped me off in the local library after school (it was a safe place to spend afternoons) and I remember a day in 6th or 7th grade when I decided I would look up what cells were made of – down to the components. I found this textbook that broke down what was in cytoplasm by compound (this much C, that much O) and, further down, certain molecules. It was very frustrating; I kept thinking “Where’s the book showing how it’s wired up? Where’s the book showing how it’s built?” I think if I had run into a good description of, say, how the lac repressor works or how hox genes pattern flies that day in 6th grade, I would have ended up in biology. As it is, hacking hardware and software seemed more accessible at the time.
What moment stands out as a turning point early in your career?
The first turning point was during my PhD when Roger Howe (my adviser) gave me free rope to go figure out whatever I wanted to do. For the first year or so of my graduate career, I worked with Roger on core microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) stuff – microbump bonding and resonator transfer – and it was going well, but I was getting restless. The desire to do something with biology had not gone away and I realized I’d better drop everything soon and follow my dreams. And Roger let me do it! He told me to go figure out what I wanted to do and pitch him ideas. I spent that summer, 1998, sort of staring at my navel. A great friend and mentor, Dave Lieberman, suggested I bring some reading material and drive with him down the coast of California – from San Francisco to La Jolla – to help me “think.” We drove my tiny Geo Metro, playing smashball on every beach where the wind would let us and Dave listened to a bunch of my crazy ideas (and constructively shot down many). By the time I got back, I had three ideas (one completely insane for the time, one hard but exciting, and one sort of “safe” choice): micropattern bacteria to deposit metal in patterns to form biologically driven metal interconnects for circuits, ultra-miniaturize bioreactor instruments for high throughout biochemical engineering, and making a MEMS gene gun. I went with door #2, had a blast, got a PhD, started a successful startup (which was made successful by two gentlemen named Dave Klein and Stephen Boyer, not me) and became a faculty member. The second turning point was really DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s) funding of cyborg insect work (jump-started by Amit Lal at Cornell) and that is another story.
Your research with “cyborg” beetles is fascinating. Who funds it and why is it important?
Various people have funded it. The recent cycle of money came mostly from DARPA (~2006-2010) but the National Science Foundation later funded some work. The original motivation was to study whether insects could be modified with modern communication, computation, and interfaces so as to make useful micro air vehicles (i.e., tiny controllable flyers). There is still a lot of debate as to whether this is reasonable or possible, but I think there are two big reasons why this work is important. First, I think it made people aware of just how small and powerful our synthetic components are in a very visceral way (“they can fit that on a bug?!”); this is societally important in subtle ways. The second is that it pointed out (at least to me) that the rapid pace of computation and communication miniaturization is swiftly blurring the line between the technological base that created us (call it Nature, I suppose) and the technological base we’ve created. This, to me, is the crucial point and something I am very interested in right now. As all this tech shrinks, we are going to be increasingly tempted to introduce synthetic components into all sorts of structures and entities we have traditionally considered “alive.” Essentially, it will be very easy for anyone to make “cyborgs” out of things in their environment. Just as in robot building, most of them may very well be rather useless and of interest only to the creator and a small circle around him ... is this right? At what point does the technological base that was here first (i.e., Nature) become spare parts? Of course, we ran into this issue long ago at the dawn of genetics and again when we first modified microbial genes for chemical production and the idea was touched on even earlier (in Diderot’s essay D’Alambert’s Dream, for example) but now we can easily modify things that have neural function; this makes the ethical conversation more pressing. How soon will this be accessible to weekend do-it-yourself hackers, for example? So, this whole notion is kind of consuming me right now.
The cyborg beetle was named one of the 50 best inventions of 2009 by Time Magazine. Were you surprised by the honor?
Yes, we were, but I think it speaks to the issue I mentioned above, that this was a very visceral result, it grabbed people. To learn more about the lab’s recent work, visit www.eecs.berkeley.edu/~maharbiz .
We often hear the phrase “It’s not science fiction anymore!” Cyborg beetles seem to fit into this category. Are there other science-fiction concepts that are close to becoming reality?
Tons. I think a lot of the “body tech” or cyborg-ish notions that were sci-fi 10 or 20 years ago are now happening. Wearable body sensors, ubiquitous “aware” environments (think, Minority Report), AI systems, intelligence in the fabric of everything, etc., all these are coming fast.
How did you become a science adviser for The Science & Entertainment Exchange? Can you give us an example or two of the types of questions you have been answering as a consultant?
I do not quite remember; I think you guys e-mailed me. It has been fun. Questions have ranged from “would connecting a cell phone antenna to a microwave oven help disrupt cell phone communications?” (for a spy movie) to what an organic future would look like in 2060 (for a video game).
Why did you become a consultant for The Exchange? Would you recommend the program to other scientists?
I initially did it because I always roll my eyes when I watch movies with “science” in them. I am unbearable. More seriously, I think technical people need to do a better job of explaining what they do, what they create, what they investigate, what their hypotheses about the universe are. We also need to get better at listening: why is it certain developments, technologies, or theories make people uncomfortable? What is the societal impact of what we do? The Exchange has been a great way to query perceptions of my work from outside the technical milieu; it has catalyzed a lot of thinking for me.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Well, change seems here to stay and it seems to be getting faster. I do not know if it is an unsustainable transient or if we will all merge into Omega Point, but I think it is ever more important that mass media is properly informed of what we do (so people can better evaluate what we are doing, so we excite young people into great careers and so I do not roll my eyes at the movies) and I also think we, as engineers and scientists, need to listen to the concerns of those outside our, usually tiny, foxholes.