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Photo by @paul_

AI in Physical Product Design

Why Should You Care?

If you consider a building to be a product, then I have already described my excitement for the way artificial intelligence is changing the construction industry (hint: Spacemaker AI). It is breathtaking to consider the possibilities for failure and success within this area.

Why should you care?

  1. Training algorithms on specific physical data gathered on how humans interact with and feel about a physical product is changing your everyday life. These could be humans very far away, or it could be you.
  2. Predicting behaviour can be brilliant, highly manipulative or both. On one hand making you choose more environmentally friendly or recycling a product can be wonderful. Making you addicted to scrolling on the other hand has become such a cliché that it is the obvious counter-example.
  3. Creativity. Something novel can be formed when data science meets engineering, industrial design and social science. We can choose to be equally joyful and critical of where this is leading or what it leads to.

A design is a plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or for the implementation of an activity or process, and/or the result of that plan or specification in the form of a protoype, product or process.

There is a variety of design areas now and design has become quite a general or generic (not specific) word. We have professions across the board who consider themselves designers or to use design methodology.

Whether it is system design, design thinking, business designer, package designer, label designer, logo designer, editorial design, web designer, user interface (UI) designer, user experience (UX) designer, flash designer, motion designer, experience designer, exhibition designer, retail designer, textile designer etc.

You probably get the point by now, so let us be more specific.

Product design as a verb is to create a new product to be sold by a business to its customers. A very broad coefficient and effective generation and development of ideas through a process that leads to new products. This can be confused with and overlaps with industrial design (service, product and physical product).

Industrial design is concerned with bringing artistic form and usability, usually associated with craft design and ergonomics (fit for humans), together in order to mass-produce goods.

Algorithm-driven design tools is nothing new. Using math in design process is ancient, so why should you care? There is after all seemingly a tidal wave of hype that spurs on the development within the field of AI, yet it is hard to understand how it can be practical or applicable.

As mentioned design can be make prototype, production and process we are most concerned with the last aspect: process. Let us drop by another hype-laden term Industry 4.0. It is a name given to the idea of smart factories where machines are augmented with web connectivity and connected to a system that can visualise the entire production chain and make decisions on its own.

  • Connected devices (Internet of Things), the extension of Internet connectivity into physical devices and everyday objects. Alexa as an example, but why not other physical products?
  • Automation, the technology by which a process or procedure is performed with minimal human assistance.
  • Learning algorithms, in the sense that we can use machine learning techniques to improve a product or production.

As such the developments in the field of artificial intelligence and its potential within the industrial product design can be viewed somewhat in connection to these other aspects. The process is changing both due to new inventive ways to design, yet is changes perhaps equally due to the notion by society, client or state of what the end product should be.

The incredible inventions of intuitive AI is a talk by Maurice Conti at TEDx about algorithms in industrial design, architecture, and wicked problem solving. His talk was from 2016 three years ago, and is perhaps too optimistic. However it has an interesting tagline:

What do you get when you give a design tool a digital nervous system? Computers that improve our ability to think and imagine, and robotic systems that come up with (and build) radical new designs for bridges, cars, drones and much more — all by themselves.
-Tagline for Maurice Conti, TEDx Portland, 2016

Physical industrial design has had to deal with aspects within their design before and bias is not new. Yet inclusive design has a growing importance, perhaps particularly since so much effort is spent on designing physical products in collaboration with the field of AI within a healthcare environment. In this regard it can be helpful to consider from the Inclusive Design team at Microsoft Design written by Joyce Chou, Oscar Murillo and Roger Ibars.

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By addressing these five biases first, we can create more inclusive products.

As I wrote in a previous article on bias: there is a lot more to consider. However design is a pragmatic process, as someone usually waits for the product or time/money is a constraint. When I interviewed a PhD fellow regarding implementing AI in physical healthcare products for the elderly it became clear that this was by no means an easy task.

There is much more to say, yet if we iterate the physical design process is important to you because: (1) training algorithms will shape physical products that affect you; (2) this predicted behaviour may be based on your wishes, yet additionally notions of how you should behave; (3) creativity can lead to joyful or questionable outcomes as the design process continues to change.

A changing design process influences you and those you care about.

Therefore it could be wise to care about AI in physical product design.

This is day 29 of #500daysofAI, I sincerely hope you enjoyed it.

I write a new article every day about artificial intelligence, so if you are interested in this topic please follow me here on Medium.

What is #500daysofAI?

I am challenging myself to write and think about the topic of artificial intelligence for the next 500 days with the #500daysofAI. It is a challenge I invented to keep myself thinking of this topic and share my thoughts.

This is inspired by the film 500 Days of Summer where the main character tries to figure out where a love affair went sour, and in doing so, rediscovers his true passions in life.

Written by

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.

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