If we look to the interests of the technology sector and its investors, we can say one thing for certain about the future. There will be more machines. But there’s still a lot of gray area in how machines will be integrated into our lives, what form they will take and what roles they’ll play.
To Keith Evan Green, Design and Environmental Analysis/Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, figuring out the role of machines is inextricably linked to the question of our role as humans, our purpose. “What are we going to do here? What are our dreams, our limitations? What are the practicalities of living a day, a year, a lifetime, and what can we do with machines to make things better or less painful?” Green asks.
Green is a designer with training in both psychology and architecture. He envisions a future where machines are incorporated into our environment to help address some of our most wicked problems—the emotional and physical pain of aging or the challenges in how we learn and teach or how health care is delivered. He also imagines machines that can enhance our creativity and connections to each other and can even bring joy. “I think we can make meticulously wondrous machines,” he says.
Designing Environments for Human-Machine Interactions
In order to make these wondrous machines a reality, Green advocates novel ways of thinking about them. Instead of a computer in a room or a robot in our image, how can machines be designed and integrated into our environment to help us? “I think we can make machines that can do almost miracles for us, but I don’t think the answer is to make them so much like us,” Green says. “Thinking of them as machines and envisioning what their intelligence is as well as their strengths and limitations allow us to find out how, through this human-machine relationship, we operate and how they operate.”
To Green, the environment is a key component. “If you put a human and a machine together, they are somewhere. Can’t we think about how that environment might support or detract from the human-machine interaction?” Instead of designing humanoid robots that mimic us and function in our world, why not codesign the environment and the technology to facilitate the collaboration between humans and machines?
Along these lines, Green has designed numerous robotic environments that support and enhance important aspects of our lives. He describes three of these projects in his book, Architectural Robotics (MIT Press, 2016). The Animated Work Environment is a robotic work environment that can change configuration to accommodate different tasks or modes of collaboration. Another project, home+, incorporates a series of robotic furnishings designed to help the elderly as they age in their homes or in health-care facilities. Green has also explored how a robotic environment can contribute to or advance literacy, designing what his team calls the LIT ROOM, a space that provides an interactive reading environment with lights, sounds, and moving panels.
Robotic Workroom and Designer
Figuring out how machines can contribute to our creativity is another of Green’s interests. A new project in his lab, called Comprehend, seeks to make a robotic space that serves as creative collaborator. The inspiration comes from stories of great artistic duos—Paul McCartney and John Lennon, for example.
“There’s a lot of talk about how they complemented each other, one being more melodic and the other more edgy. There’s also this idea where one person starts a sentence or a couple of notes of a song and the other person can finish it,” Green says. “So we thought, could a robotic workroom serve as partner to a human designer? We could give the machine some cultivated skills, and maybe it’s missing some that humans have, and the two of them could use each other’s assets in the best of ways.”
The workroom could take the form of a three-dimensional digital mood board, where the artist chooses colors or textures and makes changes that the machine could respond to. Over time, Green imagines the room could develop some understanding of the human partner’s process and ways of thinking. The project could also be a platform to explore the difference between creative flow in a collaboration between two human partners and between a human and machine.
Open-Air Library Spaces
Another in-progress effort, called Library Cubed, is a reimagining of how the resources of libraries can be made available in an urban setting. The idea is to create small library spaces in public areas. The open-air spaces would include furnishings and electronic resources, where people could access and generate information or art or play games.
“In what world do people and other living things, information, and machines flow together?”
“Libraries are becoming play spaces in a sense,” Green says. “So our idea is this: Can we bring some of what this new library is into the outdoors—a library without walls that brings people together, attaches them to place and to others?”
The library cubes could support traditional libraries by creating accessible thresholds to their resources. They could also provide library access to cities or parts of cities that can’t afford brick and mortar facilities or expansions. “What if we could develop, for a fraction of the cost, these parcels of urban land and make a little pocket park with rooms of a library?” Green says. “That might be a kind of bridge or conduit to generating and accessing information.”
In each project, Green begins by investigating the human need the project satisfies, as well as finding the appropriate measures for that need. “One of my better assets is that I recognize my shortcomings,” Green says. “For something like the LIT ROOM, for example, I’ll go out and find that research expert for literacy in young children, who sits down with me and my crazy idea and helps me find a measure, helps me test it with children. Then we can design it in cooperation with children, teachers, and librarians.”
The Fusion of Design, Technology, and Psychology
This kind of collaboration transcends discrete departments and disciplines, which hasn’t always been easy. “There were many years where I said, I don’t have any idea if this is going to work,” Green says. “As an architect and designer at a research university, the challenge was this: What constitutes research for someone like me? How do I build a practice within the university?
“One way is to be very speculative, exploratory, and outside,” he continues. “To pull together the resources that are available at a university and not available in industry, so we can contribute something back to practitioners and peers.”
For Green, this means gathering people with varied backgrounds around the table. He says these collaborations have truly embodied the term transdisciplinary—researchers transform their own expertise through deeply engaging with other disciplines. “I feel like a postdoc every day,” he explains. “We have this constant mix of people whom I continue to learn from, and they tend to be really exciting people because they’re also pushing the boundaries or jumping over them.”
Green came to Cornell in 2016 in large part because of the Design and Environmental Analysis (DEA) department, which he describes as a curiosity, in its combination of psychology, design of all kinds, and increasingly, technology. “I think this little home has great potential to be the space of the future,” he says. “What we’re really charged with is envisioning that future, giving it some form, and, from the analysis side, seeking some understanding of what it is and what it can be. That’s really what DEA is about.”
With technology as a certain and integral part of that future, Green wants the human-centered approach to shape what’s to come. “At the end of the day, it’s not that I really love machines. I’m interested in human beings, what we can do,” he says. “Technology is here, and more of it’s coming. As a designer, it’s an opportunity. What are we going to do with it? How do we fit it in? In what world do people and other living things, information, and machines flow together?”