In February, as COVID-19 spread beyond China’s borders, we visited the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan and viewed Future and the Arts: AI, Robotics, Cities, Life – How Humanity Will Live Tomorrow. The 100 projects from across the globe were thought provoking then. Now with the global pandemic in full force they have profound relevance.
New Possibilities of Cities
Based on early data, air pollution leads to many more COVID-19 cases and low income people with unstable housing are far more likely to test positive. This presents an urgent imperative to re-conceive how cities are designed. Beyond moral responsibility, we depend on lower income citizens to care for the elderly, deliver vital packages, produce our food, provide healthcare services – to keep the wheels on what is revealed to be a fragile society.
Seven new possible concepts for cities were presented ranging from buildings capable of photosynthesis to the creation of communities at harmony with the ocean – versus erecting sea walls or reclaiming land.
The Bjarke Ingels Group’s Oceanix City (2019) is an artificial ecosystem conceived to be built on the sea in tropical regions. Designed to be a home for 10,000 residents to start – it can adapt and expand as needs evolve. It comprises two hectare modules connected as they float and utilizes solar power generation, local agriculture and zero waste systems. The concept is based on the UN’s sustainable development goals and is designed to be independent of social or energy infrastructure.
Pomeroy Studio’s Pod Off-Grid (2016) is a prototype for a zero emission, modular, off-grid marine city. Projects have been designed for Singapore and Venice to date to address shortage of urban residential space and higher sea levels. The firm has extensive experience developing projects that fuse local, age-old, energy efficient building traditions from societies around the world with modern technologies.
Others included Masdar City (2014 – ) an eco city designed by Foster + Partners being built in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – where there is luxury to plan urban spaces from the ground up.
MAD Architects – designer of Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada and Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles – presented the Shanshui City (2009). The concept melds the aesthetics of a traditional Chinese ink painting with computational design.
XTU Architects presented X_CLOUD CITY (2019), living spaces in the clouds, once it has become difficult to live on the Earth’s surface due to air pollution, overpopulation and global warming.
A myriad of challenges now face us including supply chain security, changed commuting patterns, more use of bicycles and less of subways, changed requirements for office space and continued climate change. All seven concepts offered extraordinary insights for future modelling.
Digital or “smart” management of city services to optimize efficiency, development and transparency is becoming a reality in cities around the world – including our own here in Kelowna, British Columbia. Cities and entire countries have redeployed Smart City technology for contact tracing in relation to controlling the spread of COVID.
Singapore launched the TraceTogether app, which uses Bluetooth to scan nearby phones. The Australian government launched COVIDsafe. South Korea is using its Smart City Data Hub. Israel has gone still further and adopted emergency rules that allow security agencies to use phone geolocation data to track individuals that have, or may have, COVID-19. New York City is working with Salesforce to design a tracing system. China has been using a QR health code.
But the capabilities of Smart City technologies are far broader and the exhibit showcased several extraordinary concepts. Alibaba Group’s City Life Stream (2019) in Hangzhou, China represents the digital ecosystem of the city. It’s a visual representation of all the transactions and deliveries conducted through Alibaba Group’s platforms – which in turn depicts the increasingly varied forms of consumer activities, business trends and development in the city’s urban core.
The upper part of the video represents the virtual ‘Technology Sky City’. The bar graph in the upper part of the video demonstrates the frequency of transactions of the Group’s online buying platforms.
The icons falling from Sky City to the town below represent product categories that are often bought in the corresponding areas. The lower part of the video represents the offline new ‘New Retail City’ which combines online and offline shopping.
The blue lines and yellow lines show delivery routes used by different business lines. All the routes were calculated by Amap, Alibaba’s web mapping service. Most interesting – all is certain to inform Alibaba Group’s ET City Brain, a AI Smart City tool for real time management of traffic volume, automatic detection of accidents and provision of better urban services.
EXPO 2025 OSAKA, KANSAI, JAPAN venue design for bidding (2019) is an experiment aimed at layering and optimizing digital data to visualize optimized urban spaces in 3D instead of aggregating data in silos.
Toward Neo-Metabolism Architecture
Coming out of a business that created biomaterials – it was a delight to see The Living/David Benjamin’s use of bricks in Hy-Fi (2014) – a temporary tower created in New York from corn stalks and husks using mushroom mycelium to harden the bricks instead of a kiln. The entire structure after demolition was completed decomposed by microorganisms into fertilizer which was then sprayed on vegetable and flower gardens.
London architectural studio ecoLogicStudio and the University of Innsbruck in Austria created H.O.R.T.U.S. XL Astaxanthin.g (2019), a 3D printed bio sculpture simulating the shape of coral using a digital algorithm. Cyanobacteria were embedded to produce oxygen through photosynthesis to purify air. The firm has also created PhotoSynthEtica (2018) – algae bio-curtains installed on building walls that capture carbon dioxide.
Wood Weather-Responsive Aperture (2015) by Achim Menges, is lovely collection of tiny elegant wood structures that could be scaled to building size and change shape according to the ambient temperature and humidity to reduce energy consumption and circulate air without HVAC.
As we contemplate increasing our resistance to COVID by reducing particulate matter, improving ventilation and attempting to maintain the environmental gains from the pandemic – biomaterials must be one of the keys to our transition.
One of a number of robotics and 3D printing solutions included the MX3D Bridge (2015-2019) a fluid 3D printed stainless steel bridge created by computer-controlled industrial robotic arms which enabled the fabrication of complex, free-form shapes. The bridge was designed by MX3D and Joris Laarman Lab and spans the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, a canal in the centre of Amsterdam. The innovation combines construction, structural engineering, metallurgy, digital production and robotics – the goal is to eventually build bridges using only robots.
Could such tools enable humans to more safely and productively together or will they eliminate the need for such work altogether – further exacerbating income inequality and poverty.
Lifestyle and Design Innovations
As a techie most of the consumer products were familiar – smart home tools, robot companions, vacuums and toys – all you would see on the floor of the annual CES Show (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas.
More exotic, fashion designer Amy Karle has crafted an extraordinary line for women who have battled heart, lung and other chronic diseases. The materials mimic the pulmonary system, blood vessels, ligaments and tendons or the nervous system literally turning the wearer’s battle for life inside out.
Even more intriguing were new materials created from living organisms – resulting in intriguingly designed furniture, food, household goods, and accessories.
The pandemic revealed our frightening dependence on modern agri-business. The emergence of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses is connected to intensified poultry production systems – a flu has caused an estimated 15 pandemics in the past 500 years. In addition, small holding farmers have been pushed to uncultivable zones by industrial scale agriculture. These practices have created zoonosis pathogens like COVID-19, Ebola and HIV that have jumped from animals and the viruses that inhabit them – to humans.
At the opposite end of the production cycle, meat production facilities with densely packed workers in close, refrigerated quarters are complex to operate safely.
This vulnerability could make the concept of artificial ingredients and foods more ‘palatable’. The exhibit included artificial meat developed using cell culture technology to reduce the environmental impact of the livestock industry and help reduce potential food shortages. If we could stomach them, like Hasegawa Ai’s imaginary DIY kit Pop Roach (2015) for making edible cockroaches – “Let’s make delicious, cute & functional GMO organic food!!” – artificial food sources could enable communities to control the entire process from ingredients to production stage.
The dark side of innovation began to weave its way through the exhibit at this point. Matthieu Cherubini’s works addressed the uncomfortable ethical questions arising from the use of predictive risks analysis in autonomous vehicles. Who lives and who dies?
Human Augmentation and Its Ethical Issues
Robotic engineering is transforming the lives of people with disabilities. OTOTAKE PROJECT (2018- ) is a project led by researcher Endo Ken at Sony Computer Science Laboratory with the aim of developing prosthetic legs for author Ototake Hirotada so that he could walk. Author of the bestselling book No One’s Perfect (2003), Ototake was born with a congenital condition known as tetra-amelia syndrome that left him without arms and legs. He described being propped up on sofas like a sack of potatoes, unable to move for much of his life. The exhibit shared video of his extraordinary journey to build the core strength and coordination to use the robotic legs – especially dangerous with no arms to brace himself with.
Bioengineering, genetic engineering and other forms of biotechnology were explored as solutions to treat incurable diseases and even improve all types of performance.
A few of the more disturbing displays and bio artworks included The Heart of Evolution (2019), a higher performance human heart created by Amy Karle – exploring to what degree humans should change their bodies. Also the ‘Transfigurations’ series (2013), genetic manipulation of embryos after fertilization to engineer them to perform jobs more productively. Imagine newborns with more aerodynamic bodies to enable outstanding sports performance or drooping hamster-like cheeks to enhance absorption of caffeine to boost work performance in jobs like coding.
It’s clear more international standards are needed to manage bioethical issues as we begin to play ‘God’ with natural selection and further inequities between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ are amplified.
Society and Humans in Transformation
A giant work by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in collaboration with Krzysztop Wodiczko offered a cautionary first hand experience of how Smart City technologies can lead to invasion of privacy, or victimization through hacking or information leaks. As we stepped into a giant room and removed our masks – facial recognition software began to identify relationships of all the visitors within the room.
The Trial of Superdebthunterbot (2016) is an art film depicting a fictional court case about a debt collecting company that utilizes AI to tragic consequences. Debt BB buys the student loan book from the government for more than it is worth, on the condition it can use unconventional means to collect debt. The company codes an algorithm to ensure fewer loan defaulters by targeting individuals through the use of big data. Superdebthunterbot utilizes machine learning so has the “capacity to self-educate, to learn and to modify its coding sequences independent of human oversight” (quote from Susan Schuppli, researcher and documentary filmmaker and essayist of Deadly Algorithms (2014) about whether legal codes can be held accountable for software that kills – and in particularly the War on Terror and its mission to ‘out compute’ enemies and pre-empt terrorist threats using predictive software.)
The algorithm realized that unregulated jobs generate cash more quickly to pay back the owed debt – and steers the vulnerable defaulters towards jobs such as unregulated medical trials. Five individuals die as a result. Debt BB is now insolvent and the original programmer has died. The case has been brought to the International Ether Court under the Algorithm Liability Act, with Superdebthunterbot standing accused of gross negligence manslaughter. Can the algorithm be found guilty?
The work is by artist Helen Knowles and was originally produced as a play and then restaged and turned into a film. It’s a reminder that such technology is being deployed before legal, ethical and regulatory frameworks are ready.
This extraordinary exhibit synthesized AI, biotech, robotics, AR, art, design and architecture – and melded the future of our cities, climate change, society and the future of humankind. I hope the exhibit can one day travel to Canada. Perhaps with immersive VR we can soon find a way to enjoy it virtually!
COVID-19 Laboratory Testing in Ontario: Patterns of Testing and Characteristics of Individuals Tested as of April 30, 2020, ICES (formerly the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences) funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health: Author Affiliations: Hannah Chung, MPH, Kinwah Fung, MSc, Laura E. Ferreira-Legere, RN MScN, Brandon Chen, MSc, Lisa Ishiguro, MSc, PMP, Gangamma KAlappa, Peter Gozdyra, MA, Tonya Campbell, MPH, J. Michael Paterson, MSc, Susan E. Bronskill, MSc, PhD, Jeffrey Kwong, MD, MSc, CCFP, FRCPC, Astrid Guttmamm, MDCM, MSc, FRCPC, Mahmoud Azimaee, P.Stat, Marian J. Vermeulen, BScN, MHSc, Micheal J. Schull, MD, MSc, FRCPC; May 2020.
COVID-19 PM 2.5 A national study on long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States; Harvard University, Lead authors: Xiao Wu and Rachel C. Nethery; Corresponding and senior author: Francesca Dominici, PhD. Updated April 24, 2020.
Is Factory Farming to Blame for the Coronavirus; The Guardian, Laura Spinney; March 28, 2020
The Business of Burps: Scientists Smell Profit in Cow Emissions; The New York Times; Adam Satariano; May 1, 2020