Is it in the bits or atoms?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
— Arthur C. Clarke

I spent Wednesday at Penn Medicine’s Connected Health event in Philadelphia. We saw an array of technologies that wouldn’t even have been imaginable when I came into this world. Mobile telepresence systems, tele surgery, the ability to remotely detect depression with merely a phone and its analysis, real-time remote glucose monitoring, and on and on.

But nothing in technology surprises me anymore. I have Meh’monia, a condition wherein all of the magic and surprise has been drained out of technology, probably by Apple. Today I expect anything that can be imagined to be possible, available, and to be executed beautifully.

A tiny but powerful computer in my pocket with greater than VGA screen resolution? Meh. Glasses with interactive heads up display? I’ll take the designer version. Hall-roaming robots that bring me my meds and let me make video calls to my family? I saw that on the Jetsons.

On my way home I dropped in at the Penn Museum and spent an hour roaming the collection. Two days later the magic I’m still thinking about is the magic in those galleries. Atoms arranged with human intellect (and vast amounts of human labor) into form with awe-inspiring scale and beauty. Many of the objects on display left me transfixed.


I can believe that almost anything can be designed and manufactured in modern facilities with modern methods, but the idea of a perfect 50-pound crystal sphere emerging from a piece of rock with nothing but years of hand labor seems like magic to modern me. As does a 12-ton sphinx of red granite that was quarried 600 miles from where it was carved.

The technology of our virtual world, which until very recently inspired such a sense of magic in me, has become the every day. And for me at least, those artifacts of a previous physical world now seem like the work of ancient magicians.

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  • floatingbones

    AFAIK, we can’t build with fractal structures yet. We have no idea about structures which are self-healing at the micro level — like the re-weaving that happens with our fascial tissue or with dead cells being removed and replaced in our muscles, organs, and blood. Structural engineer Sinan Korkmaz has created prototypes of tensegrity bridges that can monitor themselves and alter the tensions of the individual tensile elements accordingly, but that tech hasn’t been used for anything but prototype designs. And the Makerbot (nor any current 3DP tech) cannot fabricate a tensegrity (my avatar is an example of a simple six-strut tensegrity) because there’s no way to create some elements at tension during the 3DP process.

    A good measure of biomimetic literacy is to know the things that nature can do that persist to be beyond our ability to fabricate. The blind watchmaker still has some tricks that we can’t reproduce.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen Korkmaz’s work, check out his paper “Configuration of Control System for Damage Tolerance of a Tensegrity Bridge”.