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Podcast: Curiosity Unbounded, Episode 7 — Staying radical and relevant


Skylar Tibbits is a designer and computer scientist whose research focuses on self-assembling and programmable materials, and 3D and 4D printing. He is the founder of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab and director of undergraduate design programs in the Department of Architecture.

In this episode,  MIT President Sally Kornbluth talks with Tibbits about the inspiration for his lab’s projects, why design at MIT is unique, and the magic in combining the creative with the technical.


Sally Kornbluth: Hello, I'm Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, and I'm thrilled to welcome you to this MIT community podcast, Curiosity Unbounded. Since coming to MIT, I've been particularly inspired by talking with members of our faculty who recently earned tenure. Like their colleagues in every field here, they're pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Their passion and their brilliance, their boundless curiosity offer a wonderful glimpse of the future of MIT.

Today, my guest is Skylar Tibbits, a designer and computer scientist whose research focuses on self-assembling and programmable materials, as well as both 3D and 4D printing. He's the founder of the MIT Self-Assembly Lab. Skylar, welcome to the podcast.

Skylar Tibbits: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

Sally Kornbluth: I'd love to start by hearing you define a couple of the terms that run through your work, because they're not actually self-evident to some of us. The first is 4D printing, which is arguably what you're best known for. Can you define for our listeners and for me what that actually means?

Skylar Tibbits: Sure. We called it 4D printing because we want to take 3D printing and add the element of time. So four referencing time, but we want to 3D print things that transform over time. They evolve, they reconfigure, they're very lifelike.

And it started with this dream of, "Can we print something that would walk off the machine? How would you do that?" No motors, no electronics. Similar to a robot, but purely material. And the machine could produce that, so we called that 4D printing. It was in 2012 or '13, and now that's grown to many other things. Different materials, different machine processes.

Sally Kornbluth: I'm curious. What are the features of the material that allow that? Is it sometimes in response to changing environmental conditions or stimuli? Or is it somehow intrinsic when you set up the initial print?

Skylar Tibbits: Most of our work is about response to the environment, and we try to do that through temperature or moisture or pressure or wind or waves. The mechanism often is two different materials. It could be more. Sometimes you could do one, but the easiest is you have at least two different materials that have very different properties.

So one is going to expand or contract, and that causes it then to curl or shrink or do something, fold, and you can use that as a mechanism. When you print it, you can then deposit different material properties with different geometries and three-dimensional structures.

But you can also do the same thing with knitting. You can do it with weaving. You can do it with all sorts of other manufacturing processes. It's really about combining those material properties in the right three-dimensional structure in response to some kind of activation.

Sally Kornbluth: I see. I see. Interesting. Can you give some kind of example of an everyday system that could benefit from this sort of technology?

Skylar Tibbits: About half of our work right now is in textiles, actually. And so, we're doing exactly that with fibers and yarns, industrial knitting, everything from dresses to shoes to jackets to swimsuits. There's really two reasons you would want that in clothing. The whole apparel industry and wearables industry is trying to make smarter clothing, but most of that is focused on sensors and more devices in that.

Sally Kornbluth: Right. Right.

Skylar Tibbits: In our case, we're trying not to have sensors and motors and stuff in your clothes. You don't want to charge your shoes at night. Right?

Sally Kornbluth: Yes.

Skylar Tibbits: So it's material-driven, and there's two main reasons. One would be tailoring. Customized for fit or customized for style.

Sally Kornbluth: That's pretty interesting.

Skylar Tibbits: So it autonomously tailors or can get a perfect fit for your body or my body. But the second one is usually climate or moisture regulation. We have a project right now about insulation. Adaptive insulation that basically keeps you cool or warm when you need it.

Same thing could happen for moisture regulation. Or think about compression garments. Adaptive compression in apparel. Basically, they're always adapting to how you're living or the environment around you or how you're performing.

Sally Kornbluth: It seems to me that this could also have medical device applications. In other words, adaptation to physiological circumstances.

Skylar Tibbits: Yep. Exactly. And the compression is a great example.

Sally Kornbluth: Yes. Yes.

Skylar Tibbits: We've done some work in that area. A little bit in prosthetics, some early work on orthodontics, so there's some. I wouldn't say our lab is heavily in the medical space, but we've done a little bit and you can see there's a lot of applications there.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting. What do you actually think the future then is? If you're looking at where your lab might go, what other arenas are you interested in and others may be interested in with 4D printing?

Skylar Tibbits: In terms of the applications of it, my lab works across many different disciplines from footwear and apparel to aviation ...

Sally Kornbluth: Interesting.

Skylar Tibbits: Automotive, manufacturing, architecture and construction. I'm faculty in architecture, so we work across many. We think about it as systems, behaviors, phenomena that can then be applied at different scales, at different domains. But I think the longer vision is that ... Right now, we all want the smart XYZ. Smart home, smart car, smart shoes, smart whatever.

And that's all very device-heavy. I think over time, it'll get more and more elegant, and it'll be more about material properties and our environments. We'll still have the smartness, but they'll be more and more simple and seamless.

Sally Kornbluth: Interesting.

Skylar Tibbits: And that likely makes them more lifelike. We're all smart without devices, so our products and environments will become smarter and smarter, but more and more material.

Sally Kornbluth: Plus, presumably it'll be potentially easier to scale and more affordable.

Skylar Tibbits: Exactly. That's one of the key benefits. Less assembly, less energy-intensive, less failure, less components, all that kind of stuff.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting. I've seen some self-assembly structure videos, so that helps make the concept of self-assembly really vivid. As a biologist, I always think about the old, if you take a sponge and you dissociate the cells and separate them, they can self-assemble into an organism. Can you talk a bit about self-assembly? How you define it and how do you compare it to traditional assembly methods?

Skylar Tibbits: So I think about self-assembly as disordered parts that build an ordered structure without humans or machines. You have a bunch of components, Legos, bricks, cells, whatever it is, they should be able to organize themselves. Ordered structure. Maybe that's function, behavior, design, without us guiding it like screwdrivers, drills, printers. Or without robots or something else doing it. It should be able to do that on its own.

Most of the time you see that in biology, chemistry, material science at very small scales. Frankly, that's usually ... When I say, "Self-assembly," either people think I mean IKEA ... I don't mean literally you are the self assembling. Or they're from biology, chemistry, material science and they're like, "Yes. Self-assembly. I know about that." But most other people don't really think about that.

At the human scale, in manufacturing and construction, that's almost non-existent. We don't use self-assembly in construction and manufacturing typically, but when you go above that, think of geological or planetary scale. Self-assembly is the only mechanism. The planets form themselves.

Sally Kornbluth: Yes. Exactly.

Skylar Tibbits: That was the question of, "Why don't we use that as humans?" That's another possible way to build things. And so, my lab focuses on macroscale self-assembly mostly for construction. Now, we have a big project in the Maldives trying to grow islands using self-assembly.

Sally Kornbluth: That's really interesting. So the intrinsic properties of the system or the material to self-associate, you capitalize on that.

Skylar Tibbits: Exactly.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting.

Skylar Tibbits: Usually, you have some material component. That could be sand or that could be blocks or legos or whatever it is. They need some kind of stickiness, but it needs to be patterned. So it can't just be everything sticks to everything.

And then, you need just the right amount of energy. Too much, it usually breaks apart. Not enough, it doesn't assemble. And if you get those right, that can happen at any scale with any component. And then, order can emerge.

Sally Kornbluth: No, that's great. So in terms of thinking about the self-assembly, how do you predict its future impact on manufacturing? We're starting to rethink manufacturing in the US in terms of robotic input and how the labor force is changing and what expertise is needed. Do you actually see this as a viable, scalable future manufacturing process?

Skylar Tibbits: You're seeing that starting to happen. Especially in material science. Starting also in chip and electronics, small-scale components where there's complexity. It's hard to get robots, hard to get people.

You're seeing it emerge in that space, but wider-spread manufacturing? I would hope so, but I will say that for the past 10 years or so, we didn't think of self-assembly as really applied. It was basic research to us.

Sally Kornbluth: Got it. Got it.

Skylar Tibbits: We were like, "Is this possible," in the beginning. What can we do with this? What if we change the number of components? What if we change the geometry, so it's not always deterministic? It becomes non-deterministic and designs emerge.

Sally Kornbluth: So you might get different outputs?

Skylar Tibbits: Yes.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting

Skylar Tibbits: We had a tumbler where parts learned to fly essentially because they would come together. And the ones that were good at hovering, they evolved this mechanism of hovering and the other ones broke.

Sally Kornbluth: That's crazy.

Skylar Tibbits: Things like that.

Sally Kornbluth: I like it.

Skylar Tibbits: But the Maldives project became very applied. And that's where it sort of skipped over factories for a second and it thinks about geology in a way.

Sally Kornbluth: Yes. Yes.

Skylar Tibbits: Landforms that already self-assemble. We think about them as either we sculpt it or we move geoengineering and move earth. Or we're just like, "Erosion happened. I don't know what to do." But there's another option which is dancing with the forces of nature and saying, "Let's try to promote something to happen naturally."

Sally Kornbluth: We usually think of those things on a geologic time frame, things that are changing geologically. When you do something like this, what sort of timeframe do these projects operate under?

Skylar Tibbits: In the Maldives, there's a lot of sand and it moves very quickly. So on the order of weeks to months, a sandbar will form. That's above the surface of the water, like a full-on island. Locals will go and have a party or have a reunion.

So it's very fast. Longest timeframe there is one season. We're really trying to compete against dredging. We're trying to eliminate dredging.

Sally Kornbluth: I see.

Skylar Tibbits: Or basically barriers to try to fight nature. Those are the two things that people think of. Pump sand or build walls and block nature. We're trying to show that you can let nature build things by helping guide it. Guide where the sand goes.

You can't sculpt it, but the sand can naturally accumulate. You're up against how fast can they pump an island. And that is usually on the order of months, but we think within a season, you can get the same amount of accumulation naturally.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting. I mentioned early on in the conversation you're sort of a designer and computer science. Do you think of yourself more as one or the other? What's the interplay there?

Skylar Tibbits: Definitely more on the design side. I came from a background of artists. I studied architecture originally. I'm much more a designer than I am computer science. Frankly, I don't really do much in computer science. I have a degree in it.

We write code and we have that as a background, but most of our work is not software-driven and computing in the traditional sense. But you can see a lot of that mentality of computation is embedded in our work. I got into computing because of design. Software was just booming at that time a few decades ago, and I started writing code to create new tools for design.

So I came in through the lens of design, but I was much more interested in, "What are the fundamentals of computing?" Literally, what is information and how does one thing communicate to another thing? Like information theory. How do we transfer information into physical objects? How do we use information? How do we program materials?

That's the kind of computing that we do, although we do also traditional computing and coding, but definitely the lab is design meets computation, science, engineering. Rather than science and engineering first, it has a little bit of design. We're the other way around.

Sally Kornbluth: It's interesting as you talk about computing ... It sounds analogous to me, to the notion of, "How do you make the whole greater than the sum of the parts?" In other words, what are the modules you need to create what you're going to do and what makes new emergent properties?

Skylar Tibbits: Totally. What's the most fundamental, simple amount of information that can lead to the maximum diversity of options? For design, that's awesome. You can have simple building blocks or I can have simple rules or precedents, and that can lead to many different creative outputs. That's like the holy grail.

Sally Kornbluth: Exactly. We hear a lot about design thinking in education and how we teach our students design thinking that's applicable to all different fields. I'm just wondering how you think about that, in terms of how you teach that and how people change their mindset when they come in with a design lens.

Skylar Tibbits: I teach a studio called How to Design. Literally, How to Design. And it came out of a very famous historic class at MIT called How to Make Almost Anything. Neil Gershenfeld teaches that.

Sally Kornbluth: Yes. Yes.

Skylar Tibbits: And then, we created a section called How to Design, because we thought we also need to talk about that. Not just making for making. How do we literally design the things we want to make? Every week, we go through one step of the design process. What is a concept? What is representation? How do I represent ideas? What does iteration do for the design process?

We go through testing, fabrication, presentation. All these different aspects of design. And that is for any MIT undergraduate across the campus that is interested in design. That started to then boom and we have a design minor. So any student on campus can be a major in anything, physics, biology, math, whatever, and then they can have a minor in design.

Now we have a major in design, so they can be an MIT design major or a double major. And it was all about trying to create a very different perspective on design. We're not a traditional design school. There's very strong design schools around the world, but how do we create polymath designers that are physicist designers and biological designers and mathematician designers and engineer designers? These hybrid, creative, technical right-brain, left-brain ethos.

MIT is the perfect place for that, that we can mix the creative with the technical. So those studios, we teach the design process, but then they're also building materials and machines and they're testing and they're thinking about ... One of the assignments is called The Physics Fabricator. "Take a principle from physics and use that to build something." And so, they think about double pendulums and chaotic systems that can fabricate parts better than something else.

Sally Kornbluth: Interesting. Interesting.

Skylar Tibbits: Or dropping things or spinning things. Some principle in physics. We try to think of the MIT ethos as a design generator and amplify all their technical pursuits as well as their creative. Bring those two together.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting. I was going to ask you how you came to MIT. It sounds like MIT is the perfect environment for your work, but how did you find your way here?

Skylar Tibbits: I studied architecture in Philly. I have a five-year professional degree. And as I was saying, at the end of that, it was just right as computation was coming on board and changing that discipline. I started by hand-drafting, and then it got to CAD.

And then, it's like, "Okay. Let's generate our own software tools." Fabrication was just booming. We didn't even have printers or anything at the school. So I started getting into code for software and code for machines, and then applied for grad school. I applied for a bunch of places, got into a number of them. At the very last second, I got into MIT and I was like, "Okay. I'm going there."

Sally Kornbluth: That's it.

Skylar Tibbits: I'm going there, because I want to learn computation from computer scientists, not from architects. Because I felt like I had a strong design background. I was taking classes with Minsky and Patrick Winston, these pioneers of AI and computation, and then I could use that and translate it back to design.

The design minor, when we first created that 2016, that boomed to become the second or third most popular minor. It kind of oscillates right there, so it just exploded.

Sally Kornbluth: That's great. That's great.

Skylar Tibbits: We realized all these students wanted to take design. And then, I think partly because of that and other forces of design happening around campus, Morningside was created. And that's really become the hub for design on campus.

I direct our design minor and major programs in our department, and then I lead the academic part of Morningside Academy for Design. I think about the Academy for Design as a way to connect all of the efforts across campus in design. Whether that's undergraduate education like I've talked about, graduate education, research, even K through 12 outreach.

Entrepreneurship meets innovation. How do we use design as a way to amplify all the other things that are happening, create a hub, bring students there, take classes, do your ops research, help them with portfolios, getting jobs outside afterwards, so that they are both the creative and the technical. Which it's super rare for a student to have that.

Anyway, the Morningside Academy is really trying to amplify and connect across-campus design. Historically, I don't think MIT is thought of as the center of design.

Sally Kornbluth: Sure. Sure.

Skylar Tibbits: Similarly, in arts, but we have such a strong history in arts and design. We're the first architecture school in the country. We've been number one for a long time. We have a really strong design program.

But more than that, I think we just have a very different perspective on design that not a lot of traditional design schools have. And I think that's a perfect match for our MIT undergrads. The creative and the technical.

Sally Kornbluth: It's interesting. You talked about right-brain, left-brain. A lot of people with sophisticated quantitative skills don't think about design. And a lot of people go into design and never delve into the arena of sophisticated mathematics or computation. To get those in the same students, as you say, will create a unique person to go out into the workforce.

Skylar Tibbits: And it shouldn't just be, "Let's solve the problem any way we can." Or, "Let's just make things beautiful," which are the cliches of engineering and design.

Sally Kornbluth: That's right. That's right.

Skylar Tibbits: How do we imagine a future that isn't possible today and have the skills to both design it, test it, build it, prototype it, communicate it?

Sally Kornbluth: That's right.

Skylar Tibbits: That whole process is what we need to combine.

Sally Kornbluth: So in terms of your perspectives, you have a family history in art and design. I understand your grandfather was an architect. Did that in some way inspire you even starting at a young age to move towards design?

Skylar Tibbits: Certainly. At first, I wanted to be an artist or maybe a photographer, and you can probably see some of that come through in our work. The way we shoot a photo or video of it. But at some point, I just remember thinking that, "Architecture. That's a practical art form. I could have a career in art through architecture."

I've definitely gone more on the artistic side and being at MIT allows me to blend those things as we were talking about. I don't practice architecture and build buildings in a traditional way. I run a research lab. But I think that ethos of imagining and creating and discovering and playing, that is definitely built in.

And then, there's different tools. Sometimes that's computation and sometimes that's a paintbrush and sometimes that's something else, but we can be creative through many different tools and many different disciplines.

Sally Kornbluth: So in your spare time, which you probably don't have much of, do you actually do art as part of your slate of hobbies and interests?

Skylar Tibbits: Not so much art anymore. I used to be really into drawing, and at some point I was painting, and I built a lot of stuff. Now it's been much more photo, video.

Sally Kornbluth: I see.

Skylar Tibbits: I've been into drone photography and video stuff.

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting.

Skylar Tibbits: We got into that through our work in the Maldives flying drones. Now that has been my creative outlet to just use the camera as a lens and to see things in a different way. And that translates to how we document our work as well. Think about the self-assembly we were talking about.

It's really hard even right now to imagine what I mean without seeing it. And then, even while you're seeing it, we're always thinking about, "How do I film this, so that it can communicate what's happening, so that anyone can see it right away and understand how this happened or what's possible with it?" So the filming, the visual aspect of it is just as important in the storytelling.

Sally Kornbluth: You have two young children. Five and almost one.

Skylar Tibbits: Yep.

Sally Kornbluth: Your work has a big arts and crafts-y class kind of feel to it. Do you share your work on some level with them?

Skylar Tibbits: Yeah. My daughter thinks we are a toy store or a toy factory. She comes to my lab and thinks that we make toys. We make a lot of things that look like toys, that are fuzzy and fluffy and squishy and interesting shapes and colors and stuff. For the first time this past weekend, she said, "Papa, can we 3D print something?"

Sally Kornbluth: Fun. Fun.

Skylar Tibbits: She's starting to think that you can make something, so I'm super excited about that.

Sally Kornbluth: That's great.

Skylar Tibbits: Before that, it was more like, "Do you want to make this thing?" But now she's starting to ask me.

Sally Kornbluth: That's funny.

Skylar Tibbits: And she's on campus. She goes to daycare here. Both of them do. Once a week, I try to take her out for lunch and we just explore campus. We wander through the tunnels.

Sally Kornbluth: That's terrific.

Skylar Tibbits: We went to the Glass Lab. We wander into makerspaces. I'm hoping some of that creative, technical part of MIT, the curiosity starts to come through, but we'll see.

Sally Kornbluth: It's so funny how these things get internalized by your kids. My son is a PhD student at MIT, but I think both for his childhood and many of my friends who were scientists, I think kids just thought having a lab was sort of a rite of passage. You would reach a certain age and you would acquire a lab. It's just sort of ...

Skylar Tibbits: Everyone's got a lab.

Sally Kornbluth: That's what everybody does.

Skylar Tibbits: Exactly.

Sally Kornbluth: Some of them stay that course and some of them do something different, but you're definitely influenced by your parents' professions.

Skylar Tibbits: I had two psychologist parents, so I went the complete opposite direction than that.

Sally Kornbluth: There you go. There you go. Well, my mom was an opera singer.

Skylar Tibbits: Wow.

Sally Kornbluth: The farthest I went with that was acapella singing in college. You have to actually have the talent to be an opera singer, which was certainly an impediment. 

You have young children at home. You have the pressures of co-directing a lab, teaching, managing your undergraduate programs. You have a huge amount on your plate. I find coming up with new ideas actually requires some mental space. When do you have creative time? How do you think about it? Do you go running? Do you carve out time to think carefully about things? I'm just curious.

Skylar Tibbits: One is the plane. Traveling and the plane has become a really good space for that. Just stare out the window. You can't move for however many hours.

Sally Kornbluth: You don't sign up for the internet.

Skylar Tibbits: Exactly. Your battery only lasts so long. My mind starts to wander and you just start to imagine and things start to connect. That has historically been a really great place for that. I come back from trips with a million new ideas and come into the lab.

But the other thing is that I just have an amazing lab full of amazing people. Super creative, talented. And if anything at this point, I set the vision and do fundraising and management, but they have way more talent than I ever did. Just hanging out with them, especially during IEP or the summers and I can spend a lot of time in the lab. Hanging out with them is super inspiring. And it's like, "We should do this. You guys did this together." A lot of ideas are generated from that. Just bouncing ideas off the people in the lab. But my own quiet time is either the shower or the drive or whatever. Or the plane was a really good one.

Sally Kornbluth: To me, the most fun thing about having a lab was just what you're saying, which is seeing the excitement, looking at the ideas, looking across the scope of the lab and thinking about novel combinations. Just harnessing that creativity and excitement of the collective is so fun.

Skylar Tibbits: Especially our undergrads. We have research scientists that are amazing, PhDs, master students that are super talented, super passionate, but our undergrads come from all across MIT. Everything from brain and cog to computer science and materials design. Everything you can imagine. There's just something different about their excitement, their knowledge. There's something really enjoyable about that energy in the lab. And if you combine that with this deep skill and creativity that the upper-level experienced researchers have, pretty awesome things emerge.

Sally Kornbluth: I think that captures extremely well the magic of MIT. Brilliant people, interdisciplinarity, and what you can get magically when you throw people together.

Skylar Tibbits: And I've always thought about the grad versus undergrad culture as two very different things. When they work together, it's super powerful, but the undergrads are just pure brilliance and energy. Creativity and technical expertise. The grads, and I say this for myself, we worked hard and proved ourselves, but maybe aren't just the most purely brilliant XYZ. We really worked hard and have gotten somewhere because of that, but when you combine those two, that's super powerful.

Sally Kornbluth: There's also the pressures. You're looking for a particular career outcome when you're a graduate student or a postdoc. You have some freedom to explore, but there's a little pragmatic thing ringing in your head. So it is nice to have this unconstrained, "What would be the most cool thing to do?"

Skylar Tibbits: And sometimes the brilliance of not being the expert or having knowledge in some other domain that inspires the people that are deeply knowledgeable in that.

Sally Kornbluth: Right. You're not constrained by what you know. That's interesting. Well, I've really enjoyed our conversation. This is an area that I have not gotten a lot of a chance to think about before, so I really enjoyed that. And I'm sure our audience is going to feel exactly the same way. So let me just thank you again ...

Skylar Tibbits: A pleasure.

Sally Kornbluth: ... And say to our audience, thank you for listening to Curiosity Unbounded. I very much hope you'll join us again. I'm Sally Kornbluth. Stay curious.

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