Interview

Using creativity to frame new technologies in a positive way

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After writing the initial post about the Living Sculpture, I bumped into Michael Szivos, the chief architect responsible for the Living Sculpture installation. Michael Szivos founded SOFTlab after completing a post-graduate architecture program at Columbia University. In between SOFTlab, he also teaches design studio and seminars at Yale University and Pratt Institute. Here’s what we learned during our Ask the Expert interview session.

Inspired by Gaudi, created with Watson

Inspired by Gaudi, created with Watson

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about SOFTlab and your design philosophy?

SOFTlab is a design firm that focuses mostly on spatial installations and exhibition design. I suppose we are best known for our ability to combine technology and craft – something which really comes alive with The First Thinking Sculpture installation.

SOFTlab’s primary differentiation lies in our ability to customize the typical software used for design which allows us to not only conceive complex forms, but also to engineer and produce them. For example, we use these tools to rationalize complex forms into details and drawings that go directly to digital manufacturing. From there, we can assemble the installations using both typical and unique materials in interesting and unexpected ways – capturing light or engaging with people in an interactive way.

Q: How did you use technology to inform the physical design elements designed by Gaudi’s artwork and architecture?

We worked with Watson to look through references in the same way we might start a project. Watson has a much larger capacity than we do as humans – we would have to look through thousands of images. Engaging Watson in this way had surprising and very useful results. For example, we often look at references and try to extract fundamental ideas that we then re-translate into a specific project. In the case of Living Sculpture, Watson found inspirational ideas we would not have thought about – things such as the use of iridescent colors, organic forms like crab and turtle shells or spider webs.

Q: How much knowledge of Watson APIs and Alchemy did you have before embarking on this project? Did it take long to ramp up?

We knew that Watson was a cognitive platform developed by IBM, but we had no idea about the service or capacity it might offer us. The prospect of using Watson in a creative capacity was really exciting to us.

A common misconception about AI is that it offers computing power that simply crunches numbers. When we began working with Watson, we very quickly realized we could work with Watson in a much more collaborative way. To our absolute delight, collaborating with Watson made me realize that technology and creativity can be brought together for different purposes – to bring people joy, to help solve problems, or to customize tools for specific needs, rather than the other way around. We worked with Watson in a similar way, and it really affected how we worked. The icing on the cake is that Watson learned from us too.

Q: What was the most challenging thing for you to overcome during the design phase? 

The most challenging part of the project was working within a three month timeline on a project that ultimately would be installed in Europe. The reality was we had even less time, as we needed to account for the time it took to prepare the installation for shipping, and, the actual shipping time. Watson helped us to meet the short runway by making suggestions on conceptual links with Gaudi’s work, different materials and colors. Using Watson expedited the design process.

Q: Was it natural to use Watson in your design process?

We often use computational tools to help create our installations. When we were approached by IBM to work with Watson we thought it was a great fit. At the time we were excited by a collaboration with Watson, but did not know how we would work together. Once we were shown the APIs we realized the process could be really seamless, making things come together very naturally.

Honestly, I think we just scratched the surface with this project. After we began to understand how Watson worked we had even more questions and ideas about how we could work with Watson in a real-time way to inform the design and fabrication process.

The truth is our collaboration created exciting questions, opened our eyes to an exciting array of future opportunities where we could further integrate Watson in other projects. Watson changed the way we think about design, how we approach projects, opening up a new way of thinking about how we use software tools to design and build our installations.

Q: Did you use design thinking in the process? 

I like to think we use design thinking throughout all of work- from the more conceptual ideas, through to the pragmatic details. In essence, our work is an extreme form of pragmatism or problem solving. The shapes and spatial quality of our work might seem complex and exuberant, but they are actually engineered shapes similar to how Gaudi worked on the overall form of The Sagrada Familia. I think it is mostly creative problem solving.

Q: Was it difficult to narrow the aperture to the areas you ultimately ended up focusing on?

Like any project I think we started off with a wide spectrum of conceptual ideas, but then narrowed it down as we worked through the specifics of the project: site, client, content, story, etc. The bigger the initial spectrum, the better. Watson not only allowed us to dramatically increase this spectrum, it found ideas that we would not have come up with ourselves, with many of these unexpected ideas making their way into the final design.

Q: The sculpture is beautiful – and inspiring to look at – but how is it applicable in real business settings?

I think the way we worked with Watson for this installation is definitely applicable in the business setting. I think a big part of business is both working within the structures you put in place, but always looking outside of those structures to see if they are as relevant in a market or world that is constantly changing.

Watson can do this. It can quickly make suggestions that we might not be able to see because of a bias to particular methods or workflows. I think Watson provides intelligent surprises, ideas and trends that we may not be looking at, but once Watson points them out it, you realize they make perfect sense – that, yes, we should be exploring these ideas. I think Watson helps you see much more in a better, and more precise way.

Q: Will your experience with Watson change the way you work going forward?

It definitely will. This project produced so many questions about how we might work with Watson in a more real-time way during the design process. We usually use digital and algorithmic processes to aid in the production, fabrication, and assembly of our projects, but in this case those processes made their way into the conceptual design as well – through our collaboration with Watson.

Q: Do you think the Living Sculpture installation could inspire other artists? Or an exhibition?

I hope so! If our work inspires someone else to ask questions about how creativity can help frame every day or new technologies in a positive way, that really excites us. Any capacity for our work to inspire others to use creativity in a positive way is a true measure of the reach of a project.

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