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The Digital Nervous System

creating computers that improve human thinking

 
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I.

Picture yourself at a party. Someone asks you something you do not know the answer to. A few years ago there was not much to do about it. But today you would probably take your phone out of your pocket and look the answer up. You might even speak to your phone and ask it to look it up for you. And you would have the answer within a couple of seconds.

This is why futurist Maurice Conti argues that you are an augmented human. You are hooked up to knowledge stored inside of a computer. You are carrying it around wherever you go. He proposes that we are living in the augmented age. An age where computers and humans collaborate and augment each other. But we are still just in the primitive beginning of this age. All tools, including smartphones, have since the dawn of man been limited to performing only precisely, what we tell them and nothing more. The abilities of a stone axe are not much different from the ones of your phone. Neither will do something by itself. They are passive tools. This troubles Maurice Conti. He wants to be able to tell his computer to design a car, and when it is done, he wants to be able to tell it that he wants the car to look faster, and then get a new option from the computer.

This is what Maurice Conti and his team is working on. And right now tools are actually taking the leap from passive to generative. Generative design tools use algorithms based on evolution, to synthesize geometry, and then come up with new designs by themselves. You tell the computer your constraints and your goals, and it explores every single possibility that meets your criteria. And what comes out is a solution, that we as humans could never think of by ourselves.

 
 

II.

So why is Maurice Conti’s most advanced design tool still inferior to a dog? Generative tools can come up with solutions to very specific problems, but are not intuitive. They are starting over every time because they can not learn. Unlike a dog. When the owner picks up the leash, the dog knows it is time for a walk, because it can create a pattern in its mind. Even though programmers can create software that is able to do things the programmers do not understand themselves, there is still a long way to intuitive computers.

In a project called HIVE the goal of Maurice Conti’s team, was to prototype the experience of the collaboration on a complex pavillion, between humans, computers and robots. The humans was acting as labour, manipulating bamboo, which is very hard for robots to work with. The robots did a fiber winding, which was close to impossible for humans to do. And everything was orchestrated by an artificial intelligence, telling robots and humans what to do, and keeping record of thousands of components. Building the pavilion would be impossible without the augmentation between human, robot and AI.

 

III.

In the future computers and robots are going to augment the human ability to think, design and create. We will see things we could never imagine or build before. But what would happen if the functions of the human nervous system could be applied to the things around us? A car might upload the information of a pothole in the street in front of your home, to the city’s public works department. A toy might tell the manufacturer, if kids are actually playing with it, or if it is on the bottom of a plastic bag in the attic.

If designers knew what happened to the things they design, out in the real world, they could create an experience that was better for the user. If we had a nervous system that connected us to the things we make and use, we would have a profound shift in our culture.

We would stop making things, and try to make people want them, and just make the things that people want.

And we are actually moving toward this reality. Maurice Conti and his team worked on a project together with some of the best extreme sport car builders. They built a car, mounted dozens of sensors on it, and made a world-class driver drive it like mad for a week. The digital nervous system of the car measured where the car had the most pressure and challenge, and gave the researchers four billion data points. They plugged it into a generative-design AI, which designed the ultimate vehicle. A vehicle that a human could never come up with alone. To create it, the humans was augmented by the machine.

The augmented age means that the world as we know it is going to change dramatically. We will not be able to imagine what our surroundings will look like. Because we will not be shaping them alone. They will be shaped through a partnership between technology, nature and humanity.

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