Back in 1995, when PC companies were experimenting with small laptops called subnotebooks, designers faced a conundrum. If they made the machines as small as users seemed to want them, the keyboards would be tough to touch-type on–especially for guys with big hands. IBM engineer John Karidis came up with a solution that became part of tech industry lore. He invented a two-piece keyboard that folded up when the computer was closed and spread out to full size when it was opened. IBM produced a computer based on the design, the ThinkPad 701C, nicknamed the “Butterfly.”
The Butterfly has long been in the permanent collection of the design department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and will be featured in an exhibition, Born out of Necessity, that’s running from today until January 28, 2013. The show contrasts designs like the Butterfly, which were created out of immediate necessity to address a problem, and designs that anticipate a problem that may be coming years in the future.
A number of the items in the exhibition are examples of Critical Design–where designers focus on the possible consequences of new technologies and new policies. Paola Antonelli, the show’s curator, explains that the Critical Design process does not immediately lead to useful objects. Instead, it produces concepts and artifacts that show the promise of new developments or warn of their potential negative side-effects. The MOMA exhibition features Foragers, a project by designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, which explores the idea of future humans, short of food, outsourcing their digestive tracts to machines so they can consume barely edible things. (See photo on left.) “It’s important to show the predictive and conceptual aspects of design. It’s useful to policy makers, politicians and corporations,” says Antonelli.
Which got me thinking: How might IBM Watson-type technologies help people anticipate problems in the future so we can plan and design for them?
Watson, of course, is the computer that beat two past champions at the TV quiz show Jeopardy! just over a year ago. David Ferrucci, the lead researcher for Watson, talks about the ability of Watson-like technologies in the future making it possible for decision-makers and even normal citizens to tap into simulations of their world and try out what-if scenarios on intelligent machines. What happens to traffic around New York City if another transit tunnel is built under the Hudson River? What would happen to population growth if contraception was made less readily available to large swaths of the population? What if global warming causes sea levels to rise four feet by the end of the century?
In a world where we could anticipate the effects of new policies or new technologies on our complex systems of systems, we could make better decisions.
These days, IBM is creating versions of Watson for specific industries, starting with healthcare, financial services and retailing. But here’s a fanciful thought: Maybe we should create a version for designers, such as Dunne and Raby, and other people who think like them–visionaries and problem solvers in the realms of urban living, transportation and transformational technologies. It’s another way to think about intelligent design.