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This Philadelphia art exhibit pushes the envelope with designs for the future


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Judy Woodruff: Question: What will the future look like?

That's a big question posed by a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Eighty designers from around the world have put their imaginations to work to address both the anxieties and excitement over the possibilities brought by innovation and new technology.

Jeffrey Brown visits the museum as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's usually the stuff of sci-fi films, books and cartoons, but now the future is on display at a new design exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Kathy Hiesinger: We want people to find their own paths.

Jeffrey Brown: Kathy Hiesinger co-curator of Designs for Different Futures.

Kathy Hiesinger: The idea of the show is to make us think of, you know, who we are as human beings and how we relate to each other and to the world around us, and what that means in terms of both design and the future.

Jeffrey Brown: But why is design a good way to explore the future?

Kathy Hiesinger: Design today now encompasses more than making chairs or simple physical objects. Designers collaborate, as the show demonstrates, with scientists, with anthropologists, with sociologists, biochemists, across all fields.

Jeffrey Brown: Divided into 11 sections, the exhibit explores innovative ideas, often mixing high tech with the natural world, textiles made of seaweed, artificial organ implants, even a robotic baby feeder.

It offers hope, inspires fear, and asks ethical questions about the choices involved.

How will our clothes be made? Who will be watching us? And how might we hide from surveillance? How and what will we eat? That was the focus for Orkan Telhan, an artist and designer at the University of Pennsylvania.

His display, titled Breakfast Before Extinction, offers several futuristic meals that may or may not whet your appetite, 3D-printed pancakes, genetically modified salmon and, strangest of all, steak made from our own blood cells.

Orkan Telhan: In the future, imagine you receive a kit coming to your house, where you can get a little kit where you can take your cells from your body.

Jeffrey Brown: My own cells.

Orkan Telhan: Your own cells, almost like getting a swab from your cheek, putting them into a little dish, where you let them incubate for, you know, six, eight weeks, so that you can have your little meat, which you can consume by yourself in front of...

Jeffrey Brown: And I'm eating myself?

Orkan Telhan: Yourself. Yes, you're eating yourself. And so no animals are harmed.

Jeffrey Brown: And why do I want to do -- why do I want to do that?

Orkan Telhan: First of all, it's the most sustainable way of making food.

I'm not saying this -- it's going to be a replacement for all your protein needs, but making you think about, you know, do we need to kill an animal to be able to feed this?

Jeffrey Brown: Scarcity and diminished resources are coming, he says. It's up to us to make some difficult choices.

Orkan Telhan: This is not about, oh, this is a solution for it. But maybe we can, you know, change certain things, and then maybe avoid this future.

Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition's top celebrity was found in the jobs section, where Quori, a robot designed by a team including architect Simon Kim mimics basic human movement.

Kim says an enormous amount of thinking goes into the look and feel of the robot and how that will impact our interactions with it.

Simon Kim: It is meant to be a genderless robot. So there's great pains in the design to maintain the kind of not only male or female traits.

Jeffrey Brown: Why is that?

Simon Kim: It's a large issue in the human-robot interaction community.

So, if it's taller than us, if it's bigger than us, if it looks aggressive, these are things that, in our perception, turn us away from the robot, whereas the robot is meant to be helpful. We might not engage at all.

Jeffrey Brown: Here, Quori performs simple gestures, but it can be programmed to do more, including things that could raise fears of the machine's power over us.

Simon Kim: So, it takes more than just smart engineering or smart design, but it's also going to take, you know, somebody who can work psychologically to make sure that the rules for which we hope these robots occupy work with us, so that we're not turned off, nor do we think so negatively about the robot that we don't assign it any role at all.

Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition includes a futures therapy lab, where visitors can digest and contemplate their experience.

Emily Schreiner is a curator for public programs.

Emily Schreiner: A lot of people come in with their eyes really wide. They have just seen a lot. They have experienced a lot.

But this is a space that has people and paper and books, and that has been sort of a hyper-analog counterpoint to a very dizzying perspective of the future.

Jeffrey Brown: People gather in the lab to read from the crowdsourced library, make art, and listen to designers talk about their work.

Wendy Rosenfield felt a range of emotions.

Wendy Rosenfield: It actually gave me a little bit of anxiety walking through, just like how quickly everything's changing and how much technology and the development of technology even plays into that.

Jeffrey Brown: Curators hope to inspire visitors to reflect on the human condition, how we can design better solutions, and also recognize our own agency.

Kathy Hiesinger: In today's climate, political, environmental, the present seems to be very urgent. And making decisions that will affect the future seem more important now than ever.

Jeffrey Brown: In a show like this allows us to think about that.

Kathy Hiesinger: I hope so. And I think there are many projects here that show what can be done or speculate about where we could go in the future.

Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition Designs for Different Futures is here through March 8, before traveling to Minneapolis and Chicago.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Judy Woodruff: And some of it, we have never thought about before.

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