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From lab-grown meats to mind-controlled sex toys, Philadelphia expo offers a peek into the future

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What will 2020s hold for humankind? The question remains unanswered. But at the Designs for Different Futures exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one can peek into the future.

From lab-grown meats to mind-controlled sex toys, Philadelphia expo offers a peek into the future
As the decade draws to a close, the future intrigues further. What will 2020s hold for humankind? The question remains unanswered. But at the Designs for Different Futures exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia), one can peek into the future. Ranging from the practical to the hypothetical, the exhibition deals with topics ranging from lab-grown meats, human-made vanilla, mind-controlled sex toys to new possibilities for birth and breastfeeding, robotic companions, speculative cities, and even ghost minitaurs that will run at high speed, scramble over difficult terrain, flip, open doors, and climb stairs and chain-link fences.
Designs for Different Futures is organised by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Here are a few futuristic concepts from the exhibition.
Neurodildo: A mind-controlled sex toy
Designed by Leonardo Mariano Gomes (Brazil), an electrical engineer, and still in the testing stage, the Neurodildo is a teledildonic set controlled by the mind. It provides a vibrator for one partner that is remotely connected to a commercial EEG (electroencephalogram) headset and an e-stimulation device worn by the other partner. The headset controls the vibrator via brain signals and feeds back sensory experience to the e-stimulation device.
Cricket shelter: Modular edible insect farm
Designed by Mitchell Joachim from the US and made by Terreform ONE, Brooklyn, New York, this cricket shelter can create food and double up as a shelter in an apocalyptic scenario. On the outermost layer, pods hold the crickets during reproduction; the inner layer contains 5-gallon, mesh-lined habitats where they live and grow until ready to be harvested. The ‘quills’ on top help draw cool air into the structure and channel the insects’ chirps like a sonic signpost. Once harvested, the crickets can be ground into an edible, protein-rich flour. The full prototype has the capacity to raise around 20,000 crickets at a time.
Crystals from human sweat
Designer Alice Potts from Britain experiments with bodily fluids, combining them with natural vegetable and plant dyes in apparel and footwear. Here, the sweat from a dancer’s exertions has manifested in crystals on the surface of ballet slippers, pigmented with dye made from red cabbage. The slippers point toward alternative futures in which our accessories are highly personalised through both aesthetic choices and the bio-signature of their materials.
Recyclable and rehealable electronic skin
Designed by Jianliang Xiao and Wei Zhang from University of Colorado, the electronic skin, also known as e-skin, is self-healing and fully recyclable at room temperature. It mimics human skin’s physical properties such as its ability to sense pressure, temperature, humidity, and airflow. These characteristics could theoretically allow robots or prosthetics using e-skin to respond to their immediate environment, paving the way for more nuanced interactions.
Circumventive organs
Designed by Agi Haines from Britain, Circumventive Organs explores the possibility of creating customised artificial organs through bioprinting. As surgical implants, these organs could bolster the capacity of a patient’s body to heal itself, reducing the need for intensive medical interventions. The concept evokes ongoing debates about the ethics of altering human biology, the financial motivations of biomedical research, and the blurry line between the natural and the artificial.
Steak from your own skin
Designed by Andrew Pelling (Canada), Grace Knight (USA) and Orkan Telhan (Turkey), Ouroboros Steak is meat made from human cell. It is produced from one’s own cells and grown in a human serum made from unusable blood-bank by-product. Pelling’s speculative company, Ourochef, looks toward an imagined “post-clean meat” future. Named after the ouroboros, the circular snake swallowing its own tail, it is created less with the intention of mass-market success than with the goal of asking us all to consider critically new ‘sustainable’ foods.
Raising Robotic Natives
Designed by Germans Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt and Jonas Voigt, Raising Robotic Natives considers future childcare with the help of machines. This speculative project consists of four aids: an industrial robotic arm equipped with a baby bottle; a child-friendly dragon costume to cover the robotic arm and transform it into a playmate; a children’s book titled My First Robot; and a kill switch to deactivate the robot in case of emergency or caregiver choice. The designers propose that robotic feeding would save 15 to 30 minutes per bottle.
Clothes that grow with you
Designed by Ryan Mario Yasin (Iceland) and made by Petit Pli, London, Petit Pli children’s clothing grows along with the child who wears it. Yasin’s designs focus on versatile outerwear pleated to stretch and grow in tandem with the child, fitting a range of sizes from nine months to four years of age.
Font that AI cannot read
Designed by Sang Mun (Korea), ZXX Typeface can confuse OCR (optical character recognition) scanners, but is readable to the human eye. In addition to some standard bold letterforms, the typeface consists of four different fonts - Camo, False, Noise, and Xed- each designed to thwart machine intelligences in a different way. The name ZXX came from the Library of Congress classification system, where ZXX is a language code meaning ‘no linguistic content; not applicable’.
Seaweed textile
Designer Violaine Buet (France) strays from the currently highly polluting and resource-intensive fabric, especially in their use of water and presents an alternative: seaweed textiles. Buet focuses solely on seaweed and her textiles can be woven, sewn, printed, dyed, embossed, tufted, engraved, braided, and pressed, creating visual appeal and tactile interest. The materials are time-consuming to produce and thus expensive, making them high-end additions to the flourishing field of sustainable textiles.
Good to know:
Designs for Different Futures exhibition is on at Dorrance Galleries, Philadelphia Museum of Art until March 8, 2020.
Photo credit: Preeti Verma Lal and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.
Read her columns here

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