The Language of AI

In this article from the Harvard Business Review it is recommended to not swear at any form of AI; as they are learning from us it may cost our career. In other words we should start treating AI with respect. Please do not use inappropriate language and think them as kitties.

With Tay Microsoft had quite an experience in learning what happens if you leave your AI follow Internet trends. Humans, we know, are not always nice. In particular the Internet gives us many examples of how human interaction is not always for the good of knowledge.

I would like to reflect on another point though, which calls AI speech improvements. One of the best features Google Pixel offers is Google Assistant. Assistant learns from you and your interaction with the phone, hence the world around you. By learning your behaviour Assistant can anticipate your actions, can join your conversations and interface with third parties like Uber. Google AI relies on an improved “understanding” of human-like thinking and language. As its human resolution gets better you might end up establish an empathic relationship with your AI and treat it as human.

Nonetheless do we need to create different kinds of humans? What can they offer to us, more than mimicry our actions to the point of believing them alive entities? Chatbots are currently used to replicated our beloveds when they pass away, by learning “language styles”. What is the ontological social role, and value, of AI? Do we want them to give us immortality? Do we want them to replicate us? Do they need then to develop human empathy? For which reason? I suppose one way to analyse the context is language. Language, indeed, is the first human vehicle, whether written or spoken, that helps with establish relationships. We do need a form of language to establish any form of connection with the other party. As AI navigate the blurred threshold of quasi-human, as we do, we can acknowledge their “being”, hence their social presence, by giving them a language. Such action blurs the human-AI threshold and makes us, human, look like machines. Is this what we want?

On another hand can machine have their own language, based on the skills and opportunities they cab open for us to live a better world? By changing the way they speak I suppose human perception and understanding of AI might take another route and open different kinds of opportunities for human-machine collaboration.

It’s all about context

Semantic search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding the searcher’s intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace, whether on the Web or within a closed system, to generate more relevant results. Semantic search systems consider various points including context of search, location, intent, variation of words, synonyms, generalized and specialized queries, concept matching and natural language queries to provide relevant search results. Major web search engines like Google and Bing incorporate some elements of semantic search. (from Wikipedia)

For the common good we should get familiar with semantic search, as it will soon change the way we acquire knowledge and learn. In this article in Forbes it is illustrated a a very interesting perspective on how our interaction with recent AI based technology is shifting our methodology of learning. The metaphor which I think works the best, as explained in the article, is to consider current search engines as funnels. We search for something and get a narrowed list of answers. The more the search engines knows about us, the better the answer is accurate. However human brain is great on pattern recognition; we are capable of linking different elements together – which includes our own background, our expectation, our bias – that affect what we are looking for. In the book Diffusion of Innovation Everett M. Rogers defines information as a process through which we reduce uncertainties when in an unfamiliar context. In other words we search to get a better picture of the context; we are not naturally looking for a specific answer, but an answer located in a context that makes sense for us.

Hence Google knowledge graph-based search. It is a search process, introduced in 2012, which looks at the context, at the user, at the location, the language, i.e. the context the search happens.

However when we speak to Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Alexa, etc we don’t get anymore a series of links, but a single answer. We are no longer allowed to select what we want to read, either the source. According to the Forbes article this system will reshuffle the information business.

Nonetheless in this post I would like to focus more on education and research. Looking for different kinds sources, connecting/disconnecting them, prooving the “truth” are actions at the core of research and knowledge. If we have a single platform that provides answers, will we be still entitled to understand where information comes from? My provocation to this is the following: context and mapping.

My guess on how human being will still find ways to be curious, investigative, to challenge assumption and axioms (for Google  we would be probably still living in a flat earth, if the answer was provided by algorithms that assemble information) will be the skills on understanding and compare different contexts and map answers in a bigger picture. Basically flipping the way Google intends to map its search engine and use it for exactly the opposite. We may be able to funnel research the other way around.


When Design is the “Shell” of Technology

One of the projects exhibited at the Oslo Architecture Biennale – which is described in The Guardian – tells the story of Mark and the experience he provides through Airbnb. Mark’s homes stage family everyday living. You will find family’s pictures and anything that will satisfy your imaginary of renting a family home. Well, it’s all fake. Mark’s business hacked the Airbnb’s keystone value: dwelling the everyday of anybody’s home with all the memories, artefacts and memorabilia that each of us collect along our life.

Airbnb’s strategy, indeed, uses the human’s perceived meaning of intimacy into a business value (which Mark flipped into the core of his business). The more the host makes you feel home, the more the accommodation will provide the experience – and good rating- you are expecting to live visiting the place, whether you ever been there or not. Intimacy is no longer a private sphere of our being, which takes shape through a series of objects we relate to. Intimacy is something you can sell. Your life goes on market (and rated), as much your image does with selfies.

Airbnb is not the only company “looking after” people’s interiors – with the collection of objects and memories; Amazon and Google are also on the same page. Amazon Alexa is indeed an artificial intelligence capable of sensing the environment. Alexa learns from you, about your taste, what you read, the music you listen, the place you visit, the friends you see,.., the list is quite long; Alexa absorbs your life, so that it can “suggest” Amazon what to suggest to you. Whether in Airbnb your intimacy mimics the social masks you need to wear to perform the character your house is placed in (romantic, modern, family, etc), Alexa moulds the character (you indeed).

Similarly Google is shifting its business approach by changing what made them very successful: search engine. According to this article in the MIT Technology Review Google is ready to introduce Assistant to the public. Assistant is a “third person” that reads you and the environment you are in (physical and digital) to make suggestions. The ambition is to turn Google search from a general page you can type in to a custom, interactive character that suggests information, whether asked or not. Assistant can enter a conversation you are having with friends and make suggestions on the topics of discussion.

Alexa, Assistant and Airbnb make design the Shell (under Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour’s perspective) of technology, at different scale of course. What does design propose more than decorating technology’s performances (both aesthetically and technically)? Is there any value that design adds, besides embodying sensors that can connect you to the Internet? Interiors and products are interfaces at different scales that provide information. We interact with spaces and objects through algorithms that “learn” our behavior to loop information back to the private company, then us. What we achieve is a chewed digested information. If interiors will be probably designed to satisfy the best AI scanning (as currently shopping mall are designed to give shops the most of visibility) and objects to keep us “busy”, what can design do? Probably I need to define what I mean with design. The human passion for making and working with materials, thinking about mechanism, sorting problems, satisfying needs. Does design still performe a service to society?


What is real Reality? AI might tell us

Last year I went to the National Gallery in London to see Francisco Goya’s exhibition. I did enjoy the painter’s mastery on giving human character to his portraits by balancing the relationship between the background, often solid colour, and the subject. Goya doesn’t draw a border between the two; he blurs the boundary so that the subject emerges from the background. Such simple operation gives a sense of the character’s personality; the balance of colours – and chiaroscuro – that gradually progress from the background to the the face and the body returns to me (the interpreter) the experience of the subjects’s personality.

Current research on AI is moving towards giving machines a sense of space, by teaching them what is space (as we do). Through Deep Learning machines are growing the sense of reality. They are developing a form of knowledge that is capable of understanding objects in real space, by means of image pixelation. In this article from MIT Technology Review it is described how machines are capable to detect physical objects via digital images; pixelation is the language they employ. The differential between the background and the given object is indeed in the focus of attention. On the opposite of the poetic skill Goya used to give a sense of the subject’s personality, the understanding of “border” is the key element used to teach machines space. The intention is to teach machines to “see”, and I suppose think, like us. Digital image pixelation is the vehicle that machines use to understand the real as we do.

What is the real?

Quoting Slavoj Žižek’s:Every field of “reality” is always-ready enframed, seen through an invisible frame. The parallax is not symmetrical, composed of two incompatible perspectives of the same X: there is an irreducible asymmetry between the two perspectives, a minimal reflexive twist. We do have two perspectives, we have a perspecive and what eludes it, and the other perspectives fills in this void of what we could not see from the first perspective“.

In other words we, human, don’t see things as our eyes do. There is a gap in between that constructs our sense of the real. As quoted from Žižek, there is a void in between that we fill with our imagination. Imagination is a form of expectation of the real, which is linked to our past experience that, in our mind, has been stored in the form of memory.

How can such a random and complex fluctuation be translated to a machine? What we call “real” is nonetheless a specific frame of our perception, which doesn’t make any distinction between digital and physical, as everything gets stored in our mind in the form of experience. It kinds of makes me think back to the Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which machines desperately need pictures to be acknowledged as humans.


Žižek, Slavoj (2006), The Parallax View, Cambridge MA: MIT Press

The Innovation of the Everyday at Different Scales

Scale is a concept I’ve got familiar with since my first year in Architecture. I am been taught that drawings have to be in scale in relation to the context. What are you trying to communicate? Scale is quite crucial because it defines the resolution of the drawing.

In design practice scale is indeed a very important tool, as it renders intentions in function to context. The understanding of scale change is a skill designers need to master, as it is an intangible infrastructure that crosses and overlaps networks, which context might not be related. Scale makes analogies among diverse territories; of course it is important to understand which  analogy enables connections.

The complexity of our society claims for feasible and transferable analysis that modifies over time. Social changes fluctuates at a too high speed for a stiff infrastructure.

I am on my way back from a two days debate over urban globalisation. The LSE/LSECities/Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft organised an incredible conference, Shaping the City, on global urbanism. Under the roof of the Venice Biennale Foundation and the support of UN Habitat the conference clustered around proposals that will be taken to the Habitat 3.

The word conflict looked to me the continuous thread that linked the many contributions. Conflict is an interruption, which can trigger positive reactions if channelled towards directions where the contrasting factors negotiate a common territory. Like scale, conflict is as universal as local. Nonetheless when conflict meets scale noise is remouved and attention is kept at core factors. It then follows that scale makes conflict a chameleon entity, as it can be interpreted and tackled via different methodologies, in relation to the specific key factors that draw any analysis.

Scale gives conflict resolution and, by connecting different territories, it helps to see beyond peculiarity to find similarities in other related territories that help find solutions.

I believe scale is a key factor in the contemporary process of design. To  understand solutions, that challenge and innovate the existent, is a dynamic fluid process of scaling up and down. One problem doesn’t match one solution but an array of proposals rendered at different scales and resolutions.

Society is far too complex to be looked by stiff systems. As design is the closest infrastructure to people’s everyday, there is an exciting medium to be employed to draw innovations through people’s everyday.

Once Upon a Time the Bell Rang

When life didn’t know what Internet was and the most advanced technology was based on horses, the rhythm of the everyday in the western Christian world was marked by the bell in the city tower. You can still experience it in some remote villages lost in the Italian countryside.

From morning odes to vespers time had its phased, organic rhythm that organised the day. The pace of the everyday was perceived as much linear as circular. The linear sequence of events made one look forward towards the future; the circular loop assured the possibility of something better to come because of the sense of continuity; the present was perceived as an extension of the past; the future as projection. The perception of time as linear loop belongs to humanity: it protects from the “unknown” and makes one look forward: “Next year by this time I will be….”

In my PhD I looked at the disruption that in 1920s technology provoked to the rhythm of the everyday. Mechanic production was detached from the reassuring linear loop. Modernist life appeared broken in fragments: there was no sense of beginning and, equally, no end. Just a series of random fragments that can be meaningless arranged in a plethora of different sequences on the conveyor belt. Bucolic time is over. The mechanic rhythm of the everyday upset the relationship humans have with nature.

Globalised humanity is reshaping the way Romanticism shaped the concept of nation, borders and belonging. We live an uninterrupted time, which crosses east to west, north to south. We communicate with people living in any corner of this world, as long as there is a device connected to the internet. There is no day, no night. The dystopian sense of time, as shaped by machines that can operate at any time, is our reality. The value of time, as a sense of dwelling space, is perceived as a network of connected points; space, and the sense of belonging, is a cloud haunting our bodies. Do we feel to be anywhere?

In ancient Roman society leisure was an important moment of the everyday. It was the time to think, to talk, to debate and argue. In other words it was a very social event, although part of private life. For the rule of pausing negotium (the time for business), leisure helped the acknowledgement and understanding of the surrounding. Leisure time can be still experienced in Italy when people sit on the streets and squares and argue about local and global politics, or observe passers-by.

The value of a city and its vitality don’t rely on any aesthetic quality, but on its citizens’ engagement and the power of connection.

Technology is a medium that enables and supports human behaviour. Nonetheless the experience component is currently the main offer we get, which makes us feel always connected. Being always connected is perceived as sense of belonging; we exists, thus we tap, pinch, and so on. To be connected means to dwell space. However when we live the digital space there is no time to think; information takes continuously our attention, with no break. The experience of information, via technology, is an uninterrupted flow of data, which rarely transforms in content. Information is just noise that catches our attention, for the time which is good enough to induce a particular behaviour.

Experience is no longer the notable event of our life, which we remember as memory; experience is a form of entertainment, which contemporary capitalism needs to get people behavior. To step back and think what we really remember is quite difficult, even though we have our Facebook timeline that recalls what happened in the Facebook past. Is it our lived life what social network reflects to us? Is there a life that transcends the photos we post, the information we share and the activity we engage with the internet?

Still don’t think it’s a technological problem, but human.

Material Perceptions

Verba volant, scripta manent.


The human perception of the surrounding passes via materials. We acknowledge forms via materials; touch enables our mind to remember how tangible forms feel. By crossing the way we perceive any given material, our expectation of it and its physical properties, we give shape in our mind to what we understand as tangible. It is a complex process where we interface different kinds of “bits” of information.

For any human mind materiality is not physical. It is an interwoven entity that qualifies as such via a process that crosses the physical world and human imagination. Since digital reality is part of our everyday, this complexity is even more clear . Since social networks, like Instagram, became a form of communication, images left behind the passive rule of remembering, to enter the active process of “verbal” communication (I analysed the topic of digital “thickness” in this paper). If in the past we mainly used images to record events to be remembered, now images are part of our communication, as much as words. Our language sees words and images playing equal roles. The realm of “speaking” is no longer an exclusive of words; images help us to communicate globally, which meaning of course shifts from culture to culture.

As designer I am working on a design process which intents to use the role images have as “material” language; it is a process that employs human imagination and the perception of touch, but under the influence of digital modelling .

As wrote at the beginning of this post, materiality is an interwoven entity made of different factors, which embrace information stored from the past with new ones, which we acknowledge via human senses, touch for instance. The physical or digital image helps with giving a context; it guides human to move from familiarity to imagination. My intent is to employ our familiar understanding of materials – how they feel and how they look – to shape a form of hybrid tectonic. I call such process oxymoron tectonic. I borrow the meaning of oxymoron from poetry , and I use it as guideline that helps human creativity in the design process that sees the physical and the digital interfaced in the poiesis of art.