SXSW 2015 – Rise Of The Maker & Advent Of The Biohacker

Posted by Matt Brown / March 16

After attending about a dozen presentations and workshops here at SXSW over the past few days, a few overarching themes are starting to become clear. One of the main topics that’s been covered has been about the democratization of the “maker” space and the rapid increase in product development and innovation that’s followed. Several new technologies (3D printing, Raspberry Pis, open APIs, open code repositories) have given ambitious individuals all the resources that they need to develop completely new products for just a few hundred dollars. Similar to the proliferation of software development after the dawn of mainstream computers, or the explosion in App development after the release of the Apple/Google SDK and store… we’re at the very beginning of a new revolution that will move into the physical realm and be much more tangible.

Two of the presentations that I attended are particularly relevant to this topic and worth sharing. The first was titled “Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief” by James Stewart, a Toronto-based Creative Director at Swappz Interactive. Stewart is part of a group called Creative Social – an international collection of Creative Directors that get together regularly to discuss trends and the future of the industry. He discussed this democratization of building, and pointed out that “things are moving so quickly now that we need to stop thinking about building an App, and start thinking about how that App will connect to beacons and wearables and implants and sensors.” He also made a very astute observation that advertising has always fueled innovation in America: selling ads helped put TVs in every home, put mobile devices in every hand, put wifi in every airport (and soon in every country courtesy Google’s Project Loon).

Another fantastic presentation was titled “The Science and Art of Genetic Engineering” by Josiah Zayner, an employee at NASA who has a PhD in bioengineering. He started out by listing off many of the wonderful things that genetic engineering has given us: nutritionally-fortified rice, drought and pest resistant crops, and gene therapy cures for certain types of blindness. But why would NASA be interested in any of this? Because space stations and long-range flights need to be highly sustainable and nearly self-sufficient since re-stocking trips can cost billions of dollars. So Zayner discussed his work on modifying bacteria that could produce fuel, food, medicine, building materials, et cetera. One of the most exciting (and potentially scary) trend that he discussed was about the advent of the “biohacker.” Now that new technologies have lowered costs, you can now do genetic engineering in your own home with just a few basic tools that you can buy at the store. This led Zayner to discuss the “lysine contingency” from Jurassic Park (probably my favorite moment from the presentation) and other ways of controlling genetically-modified populations. It’s an exciting time, but makes me wonder how this can be regulated in the future.