Microsoft unveils Ada, a 'living' AI structure that translates data into light and color

Image via John Brecher for Microsoft

Microsoft's belief that artificial intelligence (AI) will continue to become relevant in the coming years has often been indicated through moves the tech giant has made in the recent past. Earlier this month, the firm partnered up with Novartis to transform the field of medicine using AI. And a few days before that, it launched a new 'Artificial Intelligence in Education' podcast that discusses its implications for students in schools, colleges, and universities.

Today, Microsoft has unveiled Project Ada, its latest Artist in Residence installation. Located in building 99 of the firm's Redmond campus, the two-story structure showcases a merging of AI and architecture, the first of its kind according to Microsoft. Named after the 19th centure polymath, Ada Lovelace, the project was headed by Jenny Sabin, artist-in-residence at Microsoft Research.

Image via John Brecher for Microsoft

Essentially, the components in Ada's honeycomb-like structure are connected to a number of cameras and microphones in the building, which collect anonymous data that serves as cues for emotion. This ranges from people's expressions to how they interact with each other, and further. This data is then translated in the form of color and light, and expressed through addressable LEDs in the actual structure, as well as the stage lights around it. Asta Roseway, who runs the Artist in Residence program described the idea of Ada and the major implications it might have in the following way:

"It is a living, breathing thing, and it is at the heart of the building. How does that change people's psychology about the space they dwell in and how they impact that space, and vice versa?

[...]

Where does this go? What else does this lead to? How else can this evolve? Would this work for something like a hospital where people need to feel calm and better?"

To clarify how its working may respond to different situations, some sample scenarios have been presented. For example, according to Sabin, when the connected devices detect a flurry of activity in building 99, Ada responds in kind through a "very vibrant and highly transformative" expression of lighting; there are even moments where it is said to "blush".

Regarding the actual physical structure, weighing at about 1,800 pounds (~816 kilograms), Ada's exoskeleton consists of 895 uniquely identified, custom-printed 3D nodes that are connected through 1,274 fiberglass rods. As can be observed, these components form an ellipsoid-shaped pavilion, with a whole network of bolted cells and cones extending inward.

As with any such project, the question of user privacy is one that naturally arises in today's day and age. Assurances have been provided in this regard, with Microsoft researcher Daniel McDuff noting that data collected from sensors is sent over Wi-Fi to a secure Azure database. Furthermore, the data that is currently being collected is stored in the form of deidentified numericals that portray "gradients of sentiment from negative to positive and mild to intense".

Essentially, this means that no video, audio, or text reaches the researchers. The purpose of storage is to learn more about how patterns of behavior change over the course of a day, and thus, make the system perform even better. Building 99 employees also have the option to avoid engaging with Ada by using spaces that are completely disconnected from the project. Moreover, they can also install the system on their local computers and turn it on and off at will.

Image via John Brecher for Microsoft

For now, the project's usage may seem slightly limited in nature, but the researchers behind it believe that several possibilities to expand it lie ahead. Ada may be programed to utilize even more types of data, such as crowd size or noise, for even more accurate reactions. The reactions could be presented in the form of visualizations of music, building vibrations, the number of people present in a given space, and more.

As one would imagine wherever AI is involved, the system is expected to become better over time, as its engagement with people increases. This would ultimately result in a better understanding of their emotions, and a better manifestation of them. In either case, Sabin and her team has indicated significant interest in the project's implications in the field of 'living' architecture, combined with AI, and how it develops in the future.

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