Coming to our senses

Harnessing precision technology for a healthy society

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Thanks to precision medicine, personalized nutrition, and the Internet of Things (IoT), sensors are a growing part of our daily lives. From fitness and GPS trackers on our phones, to the microphones and cameras on our smart TVs, to virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Facebook Portal, more and more new devices and digital technology are crowding their way into our private lives. Intelligent toilets, connected toothbrushes, interactive mirrors, and other digitally connected objects are creating precision spaces for our physiologically and biochemically quantified selves. But are smart homes and offices really smarter? Are we losing privacy, integrity, and even humanity in the process? Is it possible to have precision, without the detrimental side-effects?

From prison surveillance to smart homes

All this digital technology and sensing seems new, but it was actually foreseen almost 250 years ago by a British architect named Jeremy Bentham. His vision was the Panopticon, a jail in which the prisoners could always be seen by a guard, thanks to an elaborate system of windows, mirrors, and the layout of the jail itself. Far from the likes of a dystopic Black Mirror episode, Bentham envisioned the system’s potential to have a profound positive impact on society. Because prisoners knew they were always potentially being watched, they’d be on their best behaviour constantly, and emerge from their sentence having learned to be better human beings. In Bentham’s mind, so would workers in factories and students in schools, not to mention people in public spaces and private homes – constantly improving themselves under these watching eyes. The benefit of constant surveillance would ultimately be a more ethical, successful, and prosperous world.

As Bentham proclaimed, “Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—instruction diffused—public burdens lightened—Economy seated upon a rock… all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

Digital technology is undoubtedly going to shape our future
View of a panopticon, inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba.

Today, Bentham’s dream is decidedly Orwellian, even as it is being deployed on a wider scale, thanks to electronic cameras and artificial intelligence (AI). In classrooms, AI-powered cameras monitor the attention spans of children, in stores they identify shoplifters and high-value customers, and in homes they alert owners to break-ins and call caregivers when elderly persons are in need. This powerful and pervasive digital technology is undoubtedly going to shape our future, but whether it’s for the better or for the worse is still up in the air.

Smart technology that builds community

How can we reap the benefits of smart technology without becoming prisoners in our own homes? To achieve this, designers, architects and computer scientists must come together to have an interdisciplinary conversation and explore new territories in the relationship between people, spaces and machines. It is a daunting challenge, but we are experimenting with new ways of doing that in our practice, and so are a host of others. Here are a few examples.

In New York, the coworking, coliving and community space The Assemblage blends geometry, colour, and furnishing, spatial and sonic design to embed physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being into our built environment. At the same time, it embraces technology and strives to “be the guiding forces of technological innovation, a social paradigm shift, and a just world for generations to come.”

In the future school of design, the mission should be to create digital technology that allow us to be the ones watching over the machines
The Assemblage in New York. Photo © Mikiko Kikuyama

At Casa Jasmina, an experimental space that combines a technical laboratory, art gallery, and bed and breakfast in the Italian city of Torino, individuals and companies come to live and work together, creating projects that explore the intersection of IoT and ethics, or open source and trust.

In Copenhagen, designer Bjorn Karmann has developed Alias, a “parasite” that lives on your smart home speaker to protect your privacy. If you’re there, pay a visit to Space 10, which has functioned as IKEA’s “secret innovation lab.” In Sweden, the two devices NEAT-Lamp and Talking Tree examine physical mobility and social connections in the workplace created by Fatemeh Moradi and Mikael Wiberg at Umeå University.

In San Francisco from May 17-19, the Maker Faire and the Embedded Vision Summit on May 20 showcase the latest space-sensing innovations from home-hackers and AI experts respectively. At Autodesk’s Pier 9, you can see how the world’s largest building information management software company is creating self-generating biomorphic designs. Finally, The Interval a museum-cafe-library-bar features a wealth of knowledge by leading long-term thinkers.

The future of precision spaces

Just as Bauhaus and Brutalism emerged to embrace the technologies of their time, the moment to start a school of precision spaces is now. In a few years, today´s virtual voice assistants will have evolved to more autonomous, moving machines that don´t just dynamically set music and lighting for us, but also arrange the furniture and the walls. They will not only keep track of our eating habits and finances, but also make decisions on our behalf. At that point, we can´t afford to have the privacy and security problems that we are currently facing. Rather than having machines watching us, we need to engineer spaces and systems where we always know what our devices are doing, thinking, and communicating. In this future school of design, the mission is to create a panopticon in which we are the ones watching over the machines.

Main image: Matthew Henry for Unsplash