Exhibited October 11, 2019
Architecture meets AI
The first architectural pavilion project to incorporate artificial intelligence, Ada's knitted light immerses visitors in a responsive and interactive glow of photoluminescence driven by individual and collective human-expression data gathered and housed within Microsoft Research Building 99.
Named after Ada Lovelace—the polymath, mathematician, first computer programmer, and early innovator of the computer age—Ada is a collaboration by architectural designer Jenny Sabin and Microsoft Research, as it embodies performance, material innovation, human-centered adaptive architecture, and emerging technologies.
A network of sensors and cameras located throughout the building offer opportunities for Ada's audience to engage, interact with, and drive the project. The data includes expression count, voice tones, and gestures that are processed by AI algorithms and correlated with sentiment. Three scales of responsive and gradated lighting include a network of addressable LEDs, a custom fiber optic central tensegrity cone, and five external PAR lights responding in real time to continuous streams of data. Specific expression data are correlated with colors, spatial zones within the project, and responsive materials.
Ada builds upon 13 years of collaborative innovation across architecture and science, where projects are informed by and embrace technology, non-standard and bio-steered concepts, and the hidden spatial structures within data.
Research meets art and design
From the moment of Jenny Sabin's first introductions at Microsoft Research in her role as artist in residence, she encountered what she described as "such a high caliber of exchange and genuine openness for creative sparks." Exploring a mutual interest for a project that would embrace specific research around artificial intelligence and its public perception, Jenny saw Ada as an opportunity to address an often-dystopic point of view about technology and "turn that around with a reflexive, human-centered project." Engaging with rigorous research enabled her to envision an installation that could serve as a future platform for researchers to give embodied visualization to their big data.
Jenny, who is fundamentally an architectural designer, points out that creative architecture is born out of constraints. She attributes her shift from artist to architect as following a desire for such constraints. Ada is an exciting demonstration of this principle, as the installation distilled from no-limits brainstorming sessions with Microsoft Research collaborators into its final innovative architecture.
Summarizing her experience at Microsoft Research as a "synergy of kindred spirits," Jenny adds, "Working outside the discipline of design and architecture, there can be a loneliness forging a new structure outside of the academy. … But this is what they—the people at Microsoft Research—do. … It's inspiring, like being a kid in the candy store."
A vehicle to envision possible futures
Asta Roseway, principal research designer and fusionist at Microsoft Research, promotes art as a bridge between technology and humanity: "If we're building these technologies to have real-world impact, it's essential to have the right kind of brains in the room … to use art as a vehicle to envision possible futures. … In the case of Ada, you have multiple individuals who've actually risen to the occasion to push beyond their comfort zone to help instantiate something novel."
A co-founder of the Artist in Residence program, Asta says the platform allows researchers to collaborate with an artist to ultimately push the boundaries of their technologies in unexpected ways. "The whole point is that it enables our researchers, our engineers, to live in the material world with their data. … One of the things that I have loved so much about Jenny's work in particular is that … it's a digital-material hybrid."
Experiments with technology that would not be possible elsewhere
Jonathan Lester, principal electrical engineer, has worked on the design of wearable sensor systems, novel sensing devices, and machine learning. He views his involvement with Ada as an extension of his primary work. Reflecting on the installation's progression from brainstorm to actualization, he too notes the compatibility of constraints and creativity: "There were lots of bumps in the road but also great chances for creative solutions."
For example, Jonathan found manufacturing to scale for Ada's required 1400 nodes to be a fascinating challenge, as he worked with mechanical engineers to eventually find a specific 3D-printing solution. "We ended up on a new but promising technology, one with architectural significance, which holds up really well."
Jonathan concludes, "Microsoft having programs like this is hugely valuable. If we were to make decisions solely based on the financial, there would be missed opportunities. The Artist in Residence program encourages people to think in new directions. People get to try new things, do experiments with technology that would not be possible elsewhere."
Where data is coming from, what it's being used for … Art can generate this discussion
Daniel McDuff, a principal researcher who works on scalable, longitudinal sensing work in human behavior and emotion, is responsible for mapping the building's data to Ada. Daniel states, "Art and technology are very powerful together. As a technology company, we should think of ways to use art as a way of communicating the things we do."
Having enjoyed working with Jenny and previous artists in residence, Daniel says their creative work offers profound advantages: "I always enjoy working with artists, learning about the process of creating something like this [Ada] that is certainly functional but, more importantly, kind of aesthetic and beautiful.
Often, working in software, we don't always think about those sides of the project. … In machine learning, we mostly think about the functional. … This installation is very visible, obvious to people. It will start to raise questions, spark conversation about where data is coming from, what it's being used for. … Art can generate this discussion."
Daniel believes the Artist in Residence program benefits the community because it brings in "outside voices, people who are willing to be provocative in a space where people work … to provoke us, to make us uncomfortable, to think about things in a different way."
About the artist
Jenny E. Sabin is an architectural designer whose work is at the forefront of a new direction for 21st century architectural practice—one that investigates the intersections of architecture and science, and applies insights and theories from biology and mathematics to the design of material structures.