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AI and fields of camomile

After a very long time, the memory came back: delicate camomile flowers growing in the middle of the mud track on the last stretch before arriving home. This was when I was growing up in Greece, in the middle of nowhere and flowers grew everywhere in spring. It was a beautiful sight and smell to experience and even though I was young and it was all I knew, I appreciated it all the same.

I returned to Greece for Easter this year and in the middle of an Athenian park there it was again; camomile growing with abandon randomly out in the open, around outdoor adult exercise equipment and thick mature pine trees. You could smell it everywhere as we casually walked in the evening and it gave such a simple pleasure to the senses. My niece is only 3yrs old but I hope this may be one of her young memories too.

During the walk, I recalled my daily life in London and all the conversations around commerce, Artificial Intelligence and wider use of technology. There is such a disparity between the future one is drawn to imagine with fields of camomile or AI as the dominant presence. There is space for both but in the conversations around technology, there is a tendency to forget about fields of camomile.

“You can only befriend the negative if you recognise that it is not destructive. …”
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara 1997

Technology users (with all the opportunities tech has to provide hugely effective solutions to global and local problems) need to keep in mind the reasons behind all their work and actions. For example, the new Amazon store with no staff to serve; the role of retail stores is wider than just for the purchase of goods; they serve social functions for community contact and cohesion. Taking it to an extreme and removing human contact in stores, could result in an elderly person trying to have their one human interaction for the week being left completely isolated. It does not mean we don’t necessarily go towards less staff in retail stores but we must acknowledge the full impact tech has on society before rushing to adopt it. What is the problem that Amazon is trying to solve by creating a store with no human service? Is it suffering from a lack of income and profit so it needs to reduce costs by opening its own store and with no local job creation? How is this action of positive value to the society it is based in?

I note similar issues with the use of BIM in the built environment. I’m a believer in the use and advantages such a tool and approach will provide the industry of design, construction and maintenance but not before we know ourselves what it is that is actually the principle of good design so that we can set the modelling to follow.

In a event on ‘AI and Society’, there were numerous views on the use and considerations of AI, but one of the most poignant lines for me by Prof Ramon Amaro (@SambaRhino) from Goldsmith’s was that all technology mediums mimic and amplify social imbalances. I have seen this in the design and construction sectors as much as within client companies. We need to be real communicators, better than what we are right now and not assume that the use of soft and hard tech will reduce communication problems. Good communication means personal engagement, empathy and active listening. It is not e-mail, text or social media platforms that simply ‘link us’.

Considering the use of tech in the job market and how it will continue to affect the nature of jobs and work, interior design needs to respond and it needs to do so now. All insightful property developers and investors must acknowledge the effect technology and AI has on their current and future clients. We need to ask ourselves what type of jobs and nature of work will become predominant within the next 10-20 years?

The example of two robots programmed to assemble a chair could evoke some job loss fears in the fit-out, Facilities Management and Maintenance sectors. Manual and repetitive jobs will be at risk following the growth of artificial intelligence.

We have knowledge right now on the way spaces affect the emotional, cognitive and physical aspects of a human being. With the premise that the jobs humans will be keeping and wanting to do are the ones using Emotional Intelligence, application of Reason, ethical considerations etc. it would be wise for all designers to start steering the spaces towards full support of these human abilities. For example, floor-to-ceiling heights need to be different for creative and Emotional Intelligence tasks than for concentrated relational thinking. Also, colours and patterns will need to change to support and draw out more softer and stronger skill sets.

Whatever we create with AI, it should be driven for good and not just another exciting game, innocent of its potential. We have seen how a tool without any ethical steerage (social media platforms) can be used for individual gain and this will not change with AI systems. The physical space we live and work in can be part of the solution towards celebrating the really valuable human skills and I for one am really looking forward to a future celebrating Emotional Intelligence beside supportive Artificial Intelligence, while walking through fields of camomile.

Further related links…

  1. The 10 skills you need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution 
  2. AI in relation to the job of a designer
  3. Record Amazon Profits
  4. UK Minister for Loneliness


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