Design Mediates Between Humans and their Environment

An interview with Curator Amelie Klein

Whether it’s delivery drones, intelligent sensors or Industry 4.0 - robotics is making steady inroads into our lives and in the process fundamentally changing our daily routines. Design plays a central role in this transformation since it’s designers who build the interfaces between man and machine. The Vitra Design Museum, MAK (Museum für Angewandte Kunst) in Vienna and the Design Museum Gent organized the exhibition “Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine,” which opened in  Weil am Rhein and is currently showing in Vienna before moving to Gent in the fall. Amelie Klein was part of the show’s curator team. She spoke with us about the designer’s role and tasks when designing robots, artificial intelligence and chatbots.

How do you define a robot? Is a chatbot a robot?

There is no single definition of a robot out there. Instead we’re sticking close to the definition by MIT professor Carlo Ratti, who is a smart city expert and advisor to the exhibition. According to him, a robot has to fulfill three basic criteria. First, it has sensors, or apparati or devices, to collect data. Second, it possesses intelligence or software to interpret that data. And third, it has actuators, another form of apparati or devices, which generate a physical or physically measurable response to that interpretive action. Outputs can be in the form of light, sound, movement, what have you. That means everything we’re familiar with in our three-dimensional, physical as well as in our digital world can turn into a robot. In the end, a chatbot is a robot, too, because every pixel that lights up a screen is nothing but a reaction that can be physically measured. A robot is certainly is not just a little humanoid on two legs as we’ve been conditioned to think, that can serve or destroy us, depending on how it’s been programmed. Instead, our smart home or our smartphone is a robot, too. Everything can become a robot as soon as it satisfies those three criteria. A robot is everything we know from the internet, but it transcends the screen and permeates our entire environment. That’s a very broad definition, but it makes a lot of sense. Experts were aghast when they first heard it, but after thinking about it they had to admit they can live with it.

Why put on an exhibition about robots and design in a museum?

Robots have long found a place in museums, just take technology exhibitions that usually celebrate innovations like a new gripper, a little robot called Pepper and so forth. They’re always about a certain euphoria about the future. Or take plastic arts, where artists tend to tackle more dystopian scenarios around those futuristic technologies. It reflects the apparent discourse about this topic and technology in general, yet robotics holds a special place. On the one hand, we hear statements like: ‘Wow, this is insane. That’s so cool!’ On the other hand we hear: ‘Jesus, we are doomed, the end is near!’ But something in between, an exhibition giving room to both positions, has been missing so far. That’s exactly why we thought it was time to approach this topic from the middle of the spectrum, the designer’s perspective. This is, in other words, exactly the role design should play: to bring things together that are, at first, not conceivable together. It’s also the most realistic approach, I think. Technology, and robotics in particular, open the door to exciting new developments and opportunities which will, or already are, making our lives easier in many ways. And there are many aspects that deserve a critical perspective and discussion.

Where exactly does design help us take a critical look at this issue?

If you understand design not only in the traditional sense as giving shape and supplying solutions, it has a lot to offer. We show many examples from the field of so-called design fiction in this exhibition. Those designers think about what the future could look like. They ask questions more than they give answers. It’s a crucial function that not only art but design ought to play going forward. To think about what will happen if we solve a problem one way or the other, or not at all. It’s as important a role for design as developing an intelligent user interface. Design is about making innovation usable for humans, making technology tangible. Design is always about mediating between a human and ‘the other’ -- between man and machine, between our behind and a piece of furniture to sit on, or between our vague angst in the here and now and a sensible application of technology tomorrow. That’s why design is so important. It’s a crucial authority to pose critical questions instead of just blindly applauding. That’s an incredibly important function of design which is more often than not sadly neglected in the German-speaking world, because the word ‘design’ is mostly associated with furniture. But that’s a crude and wanton misperception of what design does and can do.

How would you describe the relationship between design and usability?

Usability is design. Whether the outcome is good or bad is another question. But usability is design pure and simple, otherwise all that code and programming wouldn’t be usable by humans.

What role does design play creating acceptance for artificial intelligence? In other words, does design want to seduce us?

Design is often abused as a marketing tool. Design at its best, though, doesn’t want to seduce us but lay out before us the opportunities of an offering. Design allows humans to explain things that would otherwise be too complex or too difficult. And I am using this word intentionally, because it’s not about making something simpler. Design doesn’t always simplify things but sometimes wants to demonstrate what’s not working as it should. As I said, I appreciate the role of design as a way to ask questions without always giving answers. Since design language is easier to understand than plastic arts it’s even more important to call things into question by way of design. That’s why I don’t think design seduces us. Design elaborates and makes things easier to grasp which otherwise wouldn’t be accessible to a human being. Sometimes it also affirms that something doesn’t work or has problems.

Why, for instance, is Amazon’s Echo designed the way it looks?

Apple honestly would have done a better job, but this can isn’t just bad design if you look at the underlying goal. Amazon tries to make the object invisible, which kind of works if you look at the exterior. The black cylinder disappears into its environment until we stop noticing it. In that regard, it does fulfill the design objective: people who set it up forget it’s there.

Many chatbots, including Telekom’s Tinka, aren’t just anonymous machines but have a personality. Why is that?

That’s design, too. When you talk about design in the digital realm for the 21st century, we’re no longer talking about form and function. Robots are a wonderful case in point. A robotic lamp doesn’t differ from a non-robotic lamp by its shape, not even by its function. They both shine a light. What sets them apart is the interaction. The non-robotic lamp interacts with me by way of a switch that I can turn on or off. The robotic lamp interacts with me in a much more complex way. It knows when I come home, what kind of lighting I like at what time, and most likely it’s not just one lamp but a whole lighting system in my home. It knows where I’m going, where I am in my home, what I’m doing and what my needs are. That’s a completely different type of interaction, and it has been designed.

So we’re talking about interaction design?

Exactly. And while the lamp and I interact, a relationship emerges. That means, it’s also about designing relationships. That’s as elementary as it is essential. Chatbots are also about interactions and relationships. That’s why design in the digital realm of the 21st century plays such an important role, and we have to be very careful to watch what’s happening. Let’s come back to Alexa. She has been so well designed that we don’t think much about her. She’s supposed to be a helpful entity that stays in the background. Those are intentional design decisions. We have to take those decisions very seriously and look at them very closely. That’s why being a designer in the 21st century is a highly political job. It makes a big difference and is a political decision, after all, whether I work for Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook or somebody else. Whether I design an object in a transparent fashion that gives me, the consumer, choices how I want to use a device, or whether I design it in a way that doesn’t afford those choices. Those are political decisions, and we have to realize it, because many designers haven’t yet understood the political dimension of their profession and aren’t aware of their responsibilities.

Design delivers technology to the end user. Design allows us to use all those things. But it also makes it possible to manipulate us and turn us into commercial objects. Everything that’s problematic about new technologies happens by way of design. That’s why design is a highly volatile, highly political, insanely important vehicle we have to look at carefully.

What role does design play in fusing man and machine?

It’s again about relationships. Clothing is a good parallel. You like some clothes more than others because they fit well or feel well. Because you feel good with and in those clothes. Because they can communicate who you are and how you want to be perceived by others. If something is designed in a way that I feel comfortable presenting myself to others and in front of myself, satisfying my self-image, then I’ll use it. That’s the crucial relationship.

What does the future have in stock, what are the upcoming challenges?

The future will bring more of the same challenges that we’re already facing today. How will we deal with new technologies in a way that lets us preserve our self-determination and freedom?

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