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Philip van Allen

As the race to develop artificial intelligence (AI) rapidly intensifies, Philip van Allen urges everyone to remain calm. The interaction designer and Professor at California’s ArtCenter College of Design affirms that we are still decades away from creating superintelligence, with today’s AI being limited to performing certain tasks. Instead of relying on a single AI to act as a virtual assistant, Van Allen proposes that we use several of them simultaneously, each with its own specific competence.

“We’re far away from what’s called general artificial intelligence where it can be all-knowing,” Van Allen says. “So really, it’s better to have these different individuals you can work with, where you know each one’s personality, biases and expertise. This also gives you more diversity, as they can expose you to different points-of-view.”

In order to build productive ecosystems for creative work, Van Allen explores the concept of Animistic Design as a new approach to AI. The designer argues that adopting multiple animistic systems allows people to work with AI in a more understandable and transparent manner, whether in a physical or mixed reality environment.

After pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, Van Allen helped pioneer a range of interactive digital media products as a Senior Producer at Philips. In 1993, he established his own interaction design company Commotion New Media, devising digital publications, musical products and interactive exhibitions for several prominent organizations. At the same time, he served as both an Associate Professor and Assistant Chair at Santa Monica College’s Design Technology Department before joining ArtCenter’s Graduate Media Design Practices program as a part-time lecturer in 2000 and as a core faculty member in 2002.

“Our belief is that artificial intelligence can’t be this engineering-driven thing.”

Tools of the trade

Taking into account the complexities of AI, Van Allen aims to address the challenges designers face in this field as a Design United Research Fellow. The designer is set to work on a project with Delft University of Technology’s Connected Everyday Lab, entitled “Design Tools for Designing Smart Collaborative Things”. In the past, Van Allen developed an open-source toolkit (NTK) that allows designers to build physical computing projects without having to code and plans to extend some of these elements into designing AI personalities and behaviours.

“The idea that we want to pursue is: how do we make it simpler for designers to get working AI prototypes up and running very quickly?” Van Allen explains. “What do designers need when they’re creating an AI system? We’ll begin the process of identifying these different needs, especially in terms of how designers can make AI collaborators fit into people’s lives. Then we’ll create some prototypes to see how a tool can behave and what it can do for designers.”

The oncoming revolution

Looking ahead, Van Allen considers the convergence of AI, the Internet of Things and Virtual/Augmented Reality as the next frontier of innovation, comparing it to the dawn of Web 2.0. Nevertheless, he is convinced that designers should play a leading role in shaping the future of AI.

“Our belief is that artificial intelligence can’t be this engineering-driven thing. It has to have designers involved to come up with new ways of using artificial intelligence that are more humane, more personal, maybe even more inspiring.”

About Philip

Personal profile of Philip van Allen 
Research fellow 20
Developing tools for designing Smart Collaborative Things