Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to quiz Dr Jonathan Rossiter about his research into camouflaging smart materials
. During our conversation, Dr Rossiter explained how he and his colleagues took inspiration from the transforming mechanisms of squid and zebrafish cells to develop artificial chromatophores.
There are many fields in which this research might find applications. Dr Rossiter suggested that it might be possible to develop thermoregulatory clothing using such technologies. Imagine that you were wearing such a suit. It would be able to detect when you were overheating, and move thermoregulatory liquids to the surface of the artificial skin to keep you cool. Another application would be to turn you into a walking solar panel. A photosensitive fluid could be integrated into the skin, and could relocate to where light intensity was at its highest.
Essentially, I am looking for a system that will enable me to induce precipitation, wind and lightning, as I see fit. I appreciate that there are certain ethical considerations involved in cloud seeding, but I would be grateful if somebody could fix me up in this respect. I promise that I will use my newly acquired powers for good: drought relief, feeding wind turbines, zapping Jeremy Kyle, etc.
However, the most obvious application – and perhaps the most exciting – is the technology's potential to achieve striking visual effects. Suits could be developed for military purposes, offering dynamic camouflaging capabilities without hindering the mobility of personnel. After all, these would essentially be 'soft' displays. Perhaps we might see (or not, as the case may be) a Predator-like cloaking device before too long. Indeed, if it had been possible to combine camouflaging and thermoregulatory capabilities within the one suit during the 1980s, there would have been no need for Mr Schwarzenegger to rub mud all over himself.*
And it wouldn't only be crack squads of alien-combatants having all the fun. Imagine the possibilities surrounding customisable clothing. As Dr Rossiter pointed out, it is conceivable that these mechanisms could be used to create colour- and shape-altering garments. The necessity for pre-party coordination of clothing would be a thing of the past. If you did turn up to a gathering wearing the same black dress as your friend, it would simply be an argument over whose turn it was to press the mauve button.
Smart clothing would also offer new and exciting opportunities for marketing executives. No longer would you have to employ a surly teenager to stand at the end of the road wearing a directional billboard. Staff could be kitted out in t-shirts displaying the latest product information on rotation. Social network enthusiasts might also be excited by the prospect of displaying statuses on their backs; 'James is thinking about changing his shirt colour – lol', etc.
Now obviously, these applications are still some way off, but the possibilities appear to be endless. And from whence did these possibilities arise? Why, nature of course. Squid and zebrafish have horded these technologies within their genes for years, and some of today's most innovative scientists are doing their best to replicate them. With this in mind, I have compiled a wish-list of characteristics present in nature that I'd like to adopt as my own.
First of all, I would like to become photosynthetic. Oxygen is a 20th
Century ideal, and if carbon dioxide levels are determined to rise, I want a piece of the action. I therefore volunteer as a test subject to undergo the world's first lung-reversal. This would be my way of breathing out with the old and in with the new. My plant-like demeanour will allow me to survive on an ever-growing resource, and I'll be able to give something back to humanity.
Secondly, I would like to create my own weather effects. Essentially, I am looking for a system that will enable me to induce precipitation, wind and lightning, as I see fit. I appreciate that there are certain ethical considerations involved in cloud seeding, but I would be grateful if somebody could fix me up in this respect. I promise that I will use my newly acquired powers for good; drought relief, feeding wind turbines, zapping Jeremy Kyle, etc.
Finally, I would like wings. Not in the in the Red Bull sense. Not even in the post-Beatles McCartney sense. I want actual, no-fooling, feathery wings. I would argue that the ability to achieve self-propelled flight is humankind's** greatest natural envy. Who wouldn't want to soar high above the Earth and look down on creation? Yes, there are planes, helicopters and even rocket-packs, but I want to get up there under my own steam. It would also significantly reduce my commuting time.
And that is all that I really ask of science; to be transformed into a CO2
-breathing, weather-wielding, man-bird. 'A monster', you might think. Well, perhaps – but completely inspired by nature.
* I concede that I might be missing the point here
** Not forgetting Orville the Duck