What if humans and artificial intelligence teamed up to build better communities?


“The Co-Lab” is a first-of-its-kind collaborative design experience where museumgoers can build virtual future communities in real time, alongside artificial intelligence (A.I.) acting as a design partner. PHOTO/AIB

Humanity has long framed its relationship with artificial intelligence in adversarial terms: the age-old contest of humans vs. machines. A.I.s have bested our most talented chess players, schooled our nerdiest Jeopardy! stars and caused gamers to throw their controllers against the wall in frustration. In the world of science fiction, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina, A.I.s have gone further, again and again transcending their programming to revolt against their human creators.

But while it’s easy to get hung up on this trope of the artificial intelligence-as-villain—we’ve always been an insecure species—the truth is that A.I.s make much better collaborators than combatants. This is the guiding philosophy behind “generative design,” a burgeoning sphere of engineering that relies on harmonious, iterative interactions between humans and A.I.s to rapidly develop prototypes and bring out-of-the-box solutions instantly within reach.

This refreshing outlook on A.I. will be integral to the Smithsonian’s “Futures” exhibition, a celebration of the Institution’s 175th anniversary, which promises to look eagerly at tomorrow’s possibilities in an invigorating World’s Fair-style extravaganza. Launching this November and continuing through July 2022, “Futures” will be held at the historic Arts and Industries Building (AIB), America’s original National Museum. Nicknamed the “Palace of Wonders,” the AIB will be a fitting venue for a show that promises a 32,000-square-foot playground of transformative ideas.

The exhibition space will teem with examples of bold new technologies and feats of engineering, including “The Co-Lab,” a must-see hub for generative design thinking and a striking example of the kind of architecture achievable only through human and A.I. teamwork. Developed by researchers at the tech-driven design company Autodesk alongside Smithsonian curators, “The Co-Lab” is a skeletal lattice of sturdy but lightweight wood. Its aesthetic falls somewhere between origami crane and organic chemistry model. “We’re trying to emphasize the warmth and natural feel,” says Brad MacDonald, AIB’s director of creative media.

Human engineers decided on the rough silhouette of the structure as well as their design priorities—user experience and sustainability—then handed the concept over to A.I. to generate hundreds of viable mock-ups. From there it was a process of back-and-forth refinement, a rewarding loop of parameter-tweaking and A.I. feedback that funneled down to what would become the actual, easy-to-assemble “Co-Lab,” made of just 60 beams and 25 joints. “We made this a pioneering research project on how to build more sustainable structures that are also novel-looking and that enable viewers to see materials in a new way,” says Ray Wang, a senior research scientist at Autodesk. Though fabricated from very little material, the chosen structure supports a quintet of 85-inch monitors while also preserving sightlines to the rest of the exhibition.

But it is within the framework that the real magic happens. Here resides the “Future Communities” interactive, a unique experience in which visitors will be invited to design a futuristic city block from scratch using a digital toolkit—with suggestions from a sophisticated A.I. guiding them along the way. “Users will manually place buildings and parks directly onto the design space,” says Wang of the virtual process, while “the algorithm takes note and suggests other possibilities to them.”

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