Architecture and Adaptation: From Cybernetics to Tangible Computing

Architecture and Adaptation: From Cybernetics to Tangible Computing

Reviews: Books

Socrates Yiannoudes:

Architecture and Adaptation: From Cybernetics to Tangible Computing

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Over recent decades, cyberneticists have been exploring the psychological and physiological meanings and applications of living machines—machines that can understand and adapt to human and environmental needs to create organic, living spaces that can be operated by users. While within traditional schools of architectural thought buildings are viewed as inanimate objects, for cybernetic scientists and a growing group of engineers, artists, and architects, buildings hold the possibility of being quasi-living entities that adapt and respond to a range of different environmental needs and inputs. The book Architecture and Adaptation: From Cybernetics to Tangible Computing by Socrates Yiannoudes explores the meaning and implications of truly user-driven architectural spaces. The book itself is a must-read for architects who are interested in designing the next generation of adaptive homes. In his book, Yiannoudes explores the history of the adoption of cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI) concepts within architectural theory and practice since the 1960s, and he proposes tools and frameworks through which interdisciplinary researchers might define common ground and collaborative research practices within the area of human-machine interactions.
     Focusing primarily on residential architecture, Yiannoudes’s book begins by describing the notion of intelligent homes. While the book is extremely comprehensive in its description of complex psychological theories about human-machine interactions and actor-network theories, and the evolution from early AI applications to more contemporary projects and advancements, notably absent is a broader discussion on the impact of advancements in emotional computing, computer vision, and big data classification theories. This larger discursive contextualization is important to provide readers with a comprehensive picture of recent advancements. The power of computer vision and digital voice recognition are crucial first steps for the next generation of machinic computing, robotic, and AI systems.  

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With increasing frequency, AI has been adopted in many aspects of life. Mobile machines such as self-driving cars and robots for various agricultural and manufacturing applications are just a few milestones where machines are starting to become intelligent. High-tech telecommunication and financial services are two of the leading sectors in adopting AI today. Netflix, for example, has used a machine-learning algorithm to personalize recommendations to its 100 million subscribers, thanks to the abundance of data that enables the algorithm to match results to a viewer’s taste. The dependence on prediction algorithms based on big data has even allowed racecar companies to predict who will win a race before it starts. However, the adoption of AI across sectors other than high-tech, telecommunication, and financial services has been far from universal. According to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, Artificial Intelligence: The Next Digital Frontier, the construction industry is one of many industries that are falling behind and failing to embrace and explore the potential of AI.1 While voice-controlled home devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home enable users to control lights and other small-scale functions, domestic space itself remains largely unchanged, nor is it perceived of as “smart.” One of the reasons for this lag in smart-home implementation is that there is a separation between the architecture as an object, the necessary interface, and the needed AI “brainpower” to achieve a truly intelligent environment that could adapt to user needs and desires.

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Architecture and Adaptation details the sense of awakening and buoyancy that characterized the 1960s utopian architecture experiments and the shift in the following decades to doomsday scenarios of environmental pollution and cataclysms, which foregrounded visions of life inside secluded reservations of pneumatic structures, PVC capsules, wearables, and prosthetic devices aimed at altering the perception of space. In the opening chapter, Yiannoudes provides an extensive overview of the literature in relation to cybernetics, cyber culture, and post-cognitivist theories as well as the work of avant-garde experimental architectural practices such as Archigram. Reflecting on the changing nature of human-computer interaction, Yiannoudes’s work oscillates between the futuristic and fantastical imaginations of AI and artificial life, moving from descriptions of hypothetical yet influential projects, such as Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, to examples of actual applications of domestic intelligence. The book highlights concerns about the impact of AI on the patterns of domestic life as well as the potential for spatial and functional transformation in domestic space.
     In this book, Yiannoudes poses questions about the nature of architecture within modernist theory, kinetic architecture, and practice, and challenges the traditional mechanistic model of “hard” technology implementation. By promoting the dissolution of the artifact and the base concept of an object, in chapter 2 Yiannoudes positions architecture as a landscape of complex and indeterminate systems. Describing architecture as an animate machine situated at the margin between the living and nonliving from both a theoretical and philosophical point of view, Yiannoudes explores the notion of architecture as an adaptive machine that can sense, respond to, and learn from stimulus and provides the end user with the ability to control and modify elements through tangible computing devices and interfaces that provide a “friendly” relationship between the system and users. While in places chapter 2 may drift from the concept of domestic-user–driven design, such as through the inclusion of a discussion on flight assembled architecture, Yiannoudes provides keen insight into embodied cognition, artificial life, and swarm intelligence. Through an exploration of end-user–driven systems, the author creatively explores the role of subsumption architecture—a control architecture that links action selection with sensory information and enables the functionality of such “decentralized” systems to “emerge from simple environmental interactions.” Yiannoudes points out that through the development and adoption of subsumption architecture, “sensory-motor activity, analysis, and evaluation of successful interactions would make the system learn and gain experience in order to optimize its prioritized tasks, such as energy efficiency and adaptive structural stability” (61).

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This book explores the psychological implications of adaptive architecture and ubiquitous computing, the margin between animate and inanimate objects, and the changing human perception of and relationship with AI-enabled systems. Yiannoudes provides his insights on the psychological dimensions from the perspective of experimental psychology, anthropomorphism, and psychophysics’ conception of animacy. Some notable architectural examples included within the book are Hyperbody’s Muscle Tower 2 (2004) and Phillip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground (2010), which brought the concept of nearly living architecture and the eighteenth-century notion of artificial life. Through an exploration of select case studies, the book contextualizes interactive architecture in order to examine the symmetrical and nonsymmetrical association and synergies between people and interactive environments. According to Yiannoudes, this relationship between human and machine “is not one of master and servant, controller and controlled,” but rather represents a relationship in which the machine is an “actant able to exercise its own action in turn.” It is a relationship in which the users, “as active intentional subjects, can apply meaning onto the system by actively interacting with it, through situated and embodied exchange” (162).

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Adaptation in this book is classified as an asymmetry in terms of the relationship between human and mechanistic actors. The conversation, according to Yiannoudes, is essential but not symmetrical, as the future of our efforts to make environments intelligent does not depend on our ability to force our characteristics on them. In chapter 5 Yiannoudes outlines a conceptual construction that he terms an “open potential” environment. Such environments, Yiannoudes explains, address a symbiotic ecology of “autonomous heterogeneous agents,” providing an alternative approach to human-computer interaction through user-driven intelligent environments that are customized by the users through “open potential” devices and software for domestic use coupled with concepts such as tangible computing applications and adaptive, interactive interfaces (183).
     Yiannoudes believes that adaptive architecture spaces hold the promise of a world full of brilliant machines. The book raises the specter of an invasion of privacy on a scale not previously possible, as smart objects move beyond the mere recognition of human faces and develop the ability to observe the movement of muscles in the face to decode what people are thinking and feeling. Adaptation would evolve into what Catherine Malabou, in her book What Should We Do with Our Brain?, explains as plasticity, “the quality by which our brains develop and change throughout the course of our lives.” Yiannoudes describes a world in which, if allowed, intelligent machines would be able to not only adapt to existing circumstances and user desires, but would possess “a margin of freedom to intervene, to change those very circumstances” and create an understanding that would open up “a newly transformative aspect of the neurosciences.”2

J. Bughin et al., “How Artificial Intelligence Can Deliever Real Value to Companies,” McKinsey & Company, June 2017, (2017).
C. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain? (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
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