The view in Kirsten Zirngibl's illustration is breathtaking, but the concept behind the design is equally intriguing. She imagines that this landscape is made up entirely of microbots, and researchers can manipulate the environment by feeding the microbots new information.
In an email, Zirngibl explained the concept behind "Microzoo 1":
Regarding the piece itself: It is called "Microzoo" because the "landscape" is actually made up of microbots. These are tiny machines (still much larger than nanobots) which are able to self-assemble into "swarms," send information to each other, and potentially form a kind of fluid consciousness. They follow many simple rules based on the actions of their neighbors, which combine to create chaotic and sometimes even intelligent behavior. Their memories are both local and distributed, the latter full of redundancies. They are able to take instructions from humans to an extent, but can also operate as their own entities indefinitely. The ultimate purpose for them is for colonizing/terraforming new worlds. More than that, they are a whole new form of "life."
This particular scene depicts a coral-like microbot terrarium exhibit in a "research zoo" on Earth. We are seeing it through a 15 ft wide glass panel. It is currently undergoing a test. Extra sensors have been embedded into the foreground structure (bottom-most middle part of the piece). Developers are using them to feed false information about the environment into the coral-like swarm to see how it handles the conflict. (Will it change its structure to try to bury the sensors? Will it reject the part of itself in contact with them? Something else?)
As the research facilities continue to expand in size, scope, and expense, business-savvy admins have turned them into heavily controlled public access parks called Sandboxes, where people are given the tools to manipulate and communicate with the microbots directly. The parks end up becoming tests for how future colonists might interact with a microswarm-dominated environment.
She also shared the influences and themes behind the idea:
I am fascinated by swarm intelligence/emergence, as well as the structure of colonies (coral, slime mold, artificial life simulations like Conway's). How close could one approach abstract thought with this architecture? I also am heavily inspired by fractals! Fractals, especially 3D ones, are tied to how swarms self-assemble to maximize certain attributes like surface area. They will help sell the idea that they are "alive" to an extent. (I actually used fractal software to help make part of this piece.) I was also inspired by Lego growing up and am interested in how to make the most out of a relatively small variety of parts.
And her larger goals for this piece?
I intend for my project to be some fresh air for how swarms/nanotech is handled in science fiction. It's a more optimistic, though still not utopian, take on things. I'm exploring psychedelic-yet-mathy visuals to sell this, and Microzoo 1 was really just an early experiment in that. I look forward to sharing this in full!