How I created the first thinking sculpture with IBM Watson

By Michael Szivos

Artificial intelligence. You hear about it every day, no matter what industry you work in. However, most of us have yet to truly interact with it, to experience the full potential it offers beyond AI assistants that order us pizza or recommend movies. We see its big-industry impacts in healthcare and Silicon Valley, but when will experts across all industries have a chance to get their hands on this technology? This is why when I got the opportunity as an architect to create a thinking sculpture for Mobile World Congress with IBM Watson, I couldn’t say no.

Architectural design has always been my passion, and I’ve always been intrigued by technology. It’s why I teach at Yale School of Architecture and the Pratt Institute. And it’s why I created SOFTlab, an NYC-based design studio that merges research, interactivity and technology with creativity. SOFTlab’s goal is to always push the limits of what’s possible, for us as designers and for our audience as participants. We knew Mobile World Congress 2017 would be in Barcelona, which inspired us to do something we’d never seen done before — work with Watson through the inspiration of legendary Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí to create a sculpture alive with data, a sculpture that thinks.

Gaudí was an iconic architect who shaped the city of Barcelona with avant-garde architecture that was light-years ahead of its time. In turn, Barcelona heavily shaped the work he created. We wanted to work with Watson to bring this approach from the past to the present.

What is Watson?

Before we got started, we knew it was essential for us to truly understand how Watson works. We sat down with a team of Watson experts and got the lowdown on the cognitive computing system that won “Jeopardy!” years ago. We discovered that Watson understands massive amounts of data — data no other system can see. This includes videos, books, social media feeds and articles. Not only that, but Watson can make sense of that data — discover themes, insights and emotions — faster than any human can on his or her own. We knew this would be the key in creating our thinking sculpture and couldn’t wait to get started.

The Process:

Step 1: Going Gaudí

We fed Watson thousands of images, literary works, articles and even music surrounding Gaudí and Barcelona. With this, Watson was able to become a Gaudí expert that could help us understand a century of inspiration in order to re-inspire our design process.

Step 2: Selecting materials

Watson’s analysis provided an output of themes that Watson noticed in all the works of Gaudí. Tiles, ceramics, glass and wrought iron were some of the combinations that helped inform our material-selection process.

Step 3: Reshaping structures

Seeing Gaudí’s work brings about clear and obvious themes such as waves, undulations and arches. With Watson, we were able to see themes that weren’t as obvious, such as crabs, spiders, candy and shells. This helped inspire the hanging chains and funnels of our design.

Step 4: Cognitive colors

Watson’s analysis of thousands of Gaudí-inspired works helped us pick unique, transformative colors — ultramarine blue, jade green, yellow and orange — which in turn helped us select the iridescent dichroic film that brings our sculpture to life.

Step 5: Bringing thinking to the sculpture

Watson didn’t just analyze years of Gaudí and Barcelona research. It also was analyzing real-time social data during Mobile World Congress. By understanding the emotions underneath tweets, Watson can enable the chains of the sculpture to move to reflect the emotions of the moment we’re in.

Creating the first thinking sculpture with Watson wasn’t just experiencing AI. It was an example of collaborating with technology to better yourself. It was being able to extend your expertise and learn from the world’s biggest experts — experts such as Gaudí. It was realizing that this technology is available to all of us, no matter which industry we’re in. With Watson, we experienced a true partnership between man and machine — and it was definitely more than just a movie recommendation.

Written By

Michael Szivos

Founder of SOFTlab

Michael is the founder of SOFTlab, a design studio based in New York City. The studio was created by Michael shortly after receiving a graduate degree in architecture from Columbia University. SOFTlab has won numerous awards including the Architectural League Prize for Young Architects…