You would be hard-pressed to find a more frequently used buzz word in fashion than ‘sustainability’, right now. Following its use, the obvious question is often, “but what do you mean by sustainable”. Both a problem and a solution, sustainability runs a broad gamut including textile and garment manufacturing practices, to chemistry and materials science, then finally product sales, consumption and usage patterns. Digging deeper, what underlies this urgent and growing focus on sustainability in the global fashion industry is the fact that is it the second most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas, but you probably know that by now. Why does that suddenly matter to many fashion brands and companies? Why are brands adopting “sustainability”. Broadly speaking, it is because of threats to profit margins (caused by increasing cost of natural resources and materials which are in sharp decline) and potential backlash from consumers who are beginning to understand the fashion industry’s wasteful methods are damaging the planet and its people.
To understand the environmental implications of the current methods used in the fashion industry it is helpful to understand the volume of resources (including energy and water) we use to make our clothes and how much use we get out of those clothes. Remembering that the planet’s resources are finite – we don’t have an endless supply of fossil fuels to burn to create electrical energy to power manufacturing and we don’t have endless access to clean water for growing cotton and dyeing processes), it follows that a circular way of manufacturing makes more sense than a linear one.
To differentiate between circular and linear using the example of jeans – If it takes up to 10,000 litres of water to make a pair of jeans and we wear them for a matter of months then throw them in the bin, never to be used again, this linear process depletes resources catastrophically. However, if those jeans could be turned into new materials (rather than thrown in the bin) that are themselves recyclable, then the resources used to manufacture those jeans provide products for a long and circular life – a perpetual one that is energy efficient and reduces the burden of future manufacturing and reduces the depletion of natural resources significantly.
This circularity was at the heart of the thinking behind the latest EU-funded project by the teams at BRIA and SABINNA, who created a fashion capsule collection of cotton and viscose garments which were then transformed into new, 100% recyclable and biodegradable materials that could be used for packaging and shop interiors. The materials are circular in that they can then be recycled a large number of times in order to keep the core fibres of the materials ‘alive’ and in use – thereby avoiding landfill.
BRIA x SABINNA garments, processes and new materials transformed into packaging
New materials in development in lab
New materials as garment swing tags
The processes BRIA x SABINNA used are based on simple organic chemistry – dissolving and reforming the cellulose molecules in the clothing into new 100% cellulose-based materials that were compressed into flexible sheets, in some cases like paper or a film, and in other cases like a thicker MDF-type ‘wood’ material. The processes vary depending on the new material being created, and the initial experiments were done on a small scale in a London-lab as ‘proof-of-concept’ that it is possible to turn any clothes made of cotton or viscose into new materials using minimal chemicals (and sometimes no chemicals at all) in ways that are sustainable in terms of the amount of natural resources (energy and water) needed to perform the recycling process and also in terms of the material outcome.
BRIA x Sabinna viscose knitted jumper, cotton shirt and denim jeans – later transformed into new materials
Laminate-effect textured card created from BRIA x SABINNA viscose knitted jumper above
Processing of denim into new packaging materials
If we look at other narratives around sustainability in fashion that call for up-cycling and wearing clothes for longer, or buying less, we see a shift of responsibility for sustainability from the industry to the consumer. Whilst this makes sense in terms of educating and informing consumers, it poses a huge problem in that it does not instigate change in the industry or challenge processes that are destroying the planet and harming people. This is what is making the shift of focus to circularity and science and technology for the answers to our most burning questions and problems in the industry crucial.
Development of new material from denim
In my design and innovation role at BRIA, I was a member of the team that conducted this project with the support of EU-funding from WEAR Sustain. The project was instigated following a trip to Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2017, during which my conversations with Marie-Clarie Daveu of Kering, Anna Gedda of H&M and Mira Duma of Future Tech Lab instigated a quest to understand just how big a challenge making sustainable products is for fashion brands, from the initial design process through to the end-of-life of the garment. Could brands, small and large alike, design and produce collections in a circular manner? What would it cost? Would the designs be compromised? What would the restrictions be? During a conversation with Vanessa Friedman she told me she thought sustainability was inherent in good fashion design, rather than an ‘add-on’. But how is it inherent? Does choosing organic cotton make a garment ‘sustainable’. Not if we consider circularity as the ultimate solution to the depletion and pollution caused by the fashion industry. So it has to go further. It has to be part of the way the collection is conceived, the materials are made, the construction methods used and the strategy for the ‘end-of-life’ of the garment – where does the garment go when it is no longer used? These were the questions we at BRIA sought to answer along with our collaborator SABINNA.
The result proves that any designer using 100% cotton and viscose is creating garments that are forever recyclable – any designer can use our processes to recycle their garments. It also proves that cotton and viscose clothing can even be recovered from landfill and processed using our method in order to keep the fibres in the circular system. One of the most exciting elements for us was to achieve new materials with garments including hand-knits, denim jeans and multi-yarn jacquard knits – showing that the thickness and form of the textile yields to the process equally well. The chemistry checks-out, giving clean and biodegradable results every time.
BRIA x SABINNA jeans
New materials created from 100% cotton jeans above
Bowl from recycled viscose process and swing tag and box from recycled denim process
The next step is to explore brand partnerships to allow companies to clean up their own supply chains – jeans offcuts used to make the shelving and flooring in-store? There is no reason why not. Branded silky cellophane-like film packaging made from recycled high-end viscose dresses? Hell yeah!
Often looking inward (and perhaps gazing too much at it’s own toned, teenage-model navel), fashion, for all the illusion of creativity and dynamism that it exudes to a captive public audience, is, in reality, largely conservative. “I don’t see much innovation in fashion” says Martine Jarlgaard, ex-Vivienne Westwood Red Label Head Designer who has also designed for All Saints and Diesel. It’s a broad professional backdrop from which she launched her brand Martine Jarlgaard London in 2014, and is presenting for the first time in an immersive ‘mixed reality’ experience on the official schedule at London Fashion Week in September 2016.
“I wanted to wait until I had a significant reason to present” said Martine, following a long discussion about the current state of the fashion industry and concerns about the environmental impact of mass production and waste in the garment manufacturing industry. These are concerns that have been simmering for some time and a handful of emerging designers are tackling these issues head on. Martine is one. She is “disappointed with fashion” and feels a universal transparent system that untangles and delineates the supply chain and sourcing of materials is needed so that it is possible for brands and consumers to understand the impact of the materials being chosen and make informed decisions. Many designers, for example, are not aware that some fabrics are created using devastatingly toxic chemicals that pollute and endanger workers and local populations. Currently, this is not transparent. She says it’s time for the fashion industry to be re-envisioned and re-defined and find the investment to create alternatives to the current polluting and wasteful processes.
Martine Jarlgaard London AW15
As this article goes to print I read a piece by Richie Siegel about the expected future domination of Amazon Fashion, despite its current lack of curation and aesthetic appeal to fashion shoppers – a problem now being addressed. Amazon’s pricing model is not based on large margins and sales discounting to shift stock like traditional fashion retailers. Its margins are small, prices are keen and products are produced to fill gaps in the market – an already more ‘sustainable’ and pragmatic model – where a t-shirt costing £5 to produce is sold to consumers at around £6.50, in contrast to a traditional retailer who would squeeze suppliers down to a price of closer to £2 in order to sell to the consumer at £6.50. Since Amazon would potentially sell tens of thousands of units (based on it’s market penetration and 65 million worldwide subscribers) it follows that if the products created by Amazon were sustainably and ethically produced it could trigger a big shift in the current polluting, inefficient, land-fill creating fast fashion sector. Granted, this still may result in a lot of product eventually finding its way to land-fill, but the business model and the motivations are promising, especially if cleaner production methods are employed, and the customer is at the centre of this model. For more information about calculating the cost of fast fashion, see my previous article Fashion Data: Calculating the cost of the fashion machine.
Martine is a curious and impassioned designer with a rich educational background (she gained a BA/MA at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and did a stint at Rhode Island School of Design where she studied sculpture, artistic anatomy and anthropology amongst other broader fine art and design subjects, and has always worked in a cross-disciplinary manner. She feels that the solutions and impetus for the change needed in the fashion industry to achieve a level of responsible, sustainable manufacturing will come from outside the industry and that technology will most likely find the solution. Amazon is a technology company, and as mentioned above, looks set to disrupt fast fashion and provide some solutions to production excess and bloated inventories.
Martine and I discuss current examples of big brands tackling sustainability and I mention the Nike Flyknit trainers, manufactured using a single knitting process creating the upper with minimal wastage – no leather tanning and sewing of component layers is required – and it can be manufactured anywhere in the world as it is machine driven. This knitted upper began as a running shoe style and has now been used in a vast array of styles including the classic Air Force One and Nike Air Max. Hershel have just released their ‘ApexKnit’ range of backpacks using the same knit technology and other product lines will surely follow. Digital knitting provides a solution that creates superior design, comfort, wearability and sustainability. Maybe that’s the key. The sustainability looks like a bonus here, as the design and product performance is enhanced AND the product is sustainable. It is also cheaper and easier to develop and iterate, therefore creating a far superior solution to the old leather, fabric and foam uppers made of many components requiring man power for stitching and assembly.
Top: Nike Air Force One – Middle: Nike Air Max – Above: Herschel ApexKnit backpack
Martine mentions being inspired by Nike’s presentation at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in which they explained the commercial and sustainable success of FlyKnit, achieved through technology and innovation. Martine later clarifies that Nike displayed a rare level of honesty at the summit, expressing frustration with the slow pace of change towards sustainability in the fashion industry. She happens to be wearing a pair of flyknit trainers during our interview, along with a gorgeous pinky, fleshy shimmering silk peaked slash neck blouse from her AW15 collection.
Martine Jarlgaard London AW15
We discuss luxury fashion in this context and when Martine mentions the apparent lack of desire for true innovation in this sector our discussion leads to a lack of cross-disciplinary teams in luxury fashion and a persistent uniformity and conservatism. Where a team’s perspective is limited, perhaps the resulting creative expression through product is too. It’s difficult to find varied perspectives on solutions to creative problems if every team member has a similar professional experience and background, which tends to be the case in the luxury fashion sector.
Since launching her brand, Martine has used a combination of sustainable, recycled and surplus fabrics from luxury mills in Italy. Her design philosophy is to create garments with a lifespan beyond one season, that are made to the highest quality, with a minimal aesthetic and an element of the unexpected. She explores the tension between minimal and maximal so that her pieces have a personality and cites sculptural three dimensional creation of the garments as a driver for the silhouettes.
Martine Jarlgaard London AW16
Martine’s SS17 collection will launch at London Fashion Week on September 17th with a mixed reality experience using Hololens, in collaboration with DoubleMe, who provide a novel 3D capture system, HoloPortal, that converts 2D videos into dynamic 3D models in real-time and supported by the Fashion Innovation Agency. Hololens is a headset that projects a hologram in front of the wearer and allows them to interact with it by walking around it and moving nearer or farther, giving a truly immersive and personal experience dictated by the wearer. Martine’s collection will be presented via Hololens, meaning technically, it could be viewed by anyone in any location who possesses the headset, and physically in an accompanying garment presentation at the W Hotel London, marking the first ever holographic 3D mixed reality fashion ‘show’ for want of a more appropriate word. So why this rather than a fashion show? The fashion show format has barely changed since its inception in the early 1900’s and does not allow any kind of personal experience with the clothes – it is passive – as is much of the interaction in the way fashion is presented. There is a lack of true engagement when sat at a distance viewing clothes zoom past on a runway and in a matter of minutes, the whole experience is over. The format of a fashion show is also restrictive in that there is an intense build-up and planning and a huge team required to deliver a show to very tight deadlines within a remit that can curb the creativity of the designers and restrict the selection of garments shown, as outlined in a recent interview with London-based designers Fyodor Golan.
Microsoft Hololens – experimenting with car models in mixed reality
Martine found complete synergy with Hololens because it allows her to work across disciplines with their digital team and create a 3D experience befitting her sculptural design approach. Here, the presentation format is symbiotic with her design approach and affords her the opportunity to showcase that and tell a story which can then be navigated from the viewer’s perspective, making another leap forward in our journey to the experiential as a form of fashion presentation. Crucially, her buyers are “super-excited” about the presentation format. Fashion is changing, albeit slowly, and it feels like Martine is at the foot of what will ultimately be the crest of an experiential fashion wave. She plans to work with this technology for coming seasons, declaring that this is in no way a one-off, but rather the beginning of an exciting journey to differentiating her brand in an intelligent and meaningful way and raising awareness of her successful creation of sustainable luxury fashion.
A sister exhibition to Fashion Hacked at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, Fashion Data is a stark reality check about the consumption of clothing and its societal meaning both in the West and East, along with the environmental implications for the planet.
Fashion Data incorporates Fashion Machine: an installation by Conny Groenewegen in which she slashes and re-works a typical leftover product of the fast fashion/clothing industry, the fleece sweater. Conny and her team of students cut up and ‘re-spun’ the fleeces onto giant spools and looped them onto huge looms’ to demonstrate the scale of waste and the banality of the fleece jumper, which is largely undesired as a second-hand product and regularly finds its way into mattresses at the end of its lifecycle, or worse still, landfill. Conny makes thought-provoking statements about the role of designers in mass manufacturing for fast fashion, summed up in the set of stills below, followed by a film documenting the creation of the Fashion Machine installation.
To view Conny Groenewegen’s fashion and knitwear design process in depth, watch this video.
In the film, note the polyethylene (PET) water bottles in the background, from which fleece jumpers have historically been made. The recycling of PET bottles into polyester fabric to create fleeces is fascinating. See the full process here.
Balancing Conny’s visual representation of physical waste is Fashion Data – a series of black and white (visually and metaphorically) statistics that give a context to the current European habits of purchasing, wearing and disposing of clothing. I’ll let the numbers do the talking.
The exhibition was curated by fashion historian José Teunissen. Her publication Fashion Data is available to read online and fleshes out the numbers stated above. It’s essential reading and explains the historic foundation of Fast Fashion, its environmental impact and the emerging slow fashion movement. It is also a useful visual summary of the Fashion Data exhibition that’s as good as viewing it first hand. To paraphrase Teunissen, 30% of today’s clothing is sold at the recommended retail price, another 30% disappears in the sales and 40% remains unsold or doesn’t even reach the shops. This is the deadstock I spoke of in my previous post Fashion Hacked. Today’s overproduction of Fast Fashion produces an enormous amount of waste with negative social and environmental impacts. There are solutions being developed to make materials production cleaner and more sustainable, but the business of, and appetite for, Fast Fashion remain strong.
Fashion Data also alerted me to the work of Dutch fashion brand Youasme (womens) Measyou (mens), which launched in 2010 as the world’s first crowdfunded fashion brand creating slow fashion collections of high quality made-to-last knitwear and accessories.
On a stylistic level I was also struck by the natural ease of Youasme/Measyou’s androgyny – it feels tangible and forever. This is in stark contrast with the overt androgyny expressed by some current fashion designers, including JW Anderson, whose work feels firmly ‘of the moment’ and deliberately provocative – more a scream of gender bending than a quiet dissolving of the aesthetic gender divide. No doubt both have merit and power for different reasons but it strikes me that Youasme’s expression feels more real; more authentic. Herein lies the ever fascinating aspect of fashion’s aesthetic debate – its subjectivity.
In addition to Youasme, a host of Dutch designers are utilising sustainable materials and practices, highlighted in conjunction with Fashion Data at Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Temporary Fashion Exhibition. Here’s a roundup.
The parting insight delivered by Fashion Data comes in the form of award winning film Unravel by Meghna Gupta. Shot in India, the film illustrates the end point of clothing from the West that is sent for recycling and reveals the gaping divide between East and West and the perceived value of clothing.
The film runs deep into value judgements about society as a whole. It is shocking and revelatory. Some Indian factory workers assume that clothes being bought from stores like Primark are very expensive, meaning that Western consumers are very wealthy and can afford to simply give away their clothes for recycling and buy new ones. They also draw the conclusion that Western women are more worthy and beautiful compared to Eastern women because of this excessive consumption. One female factory worker ponders, while removing decorative crystals from underwear, what the wearer must have done to deserve such a fate – stones on her underwear?! She concluded the woman must have been forced to wear it as some form of punishment for bad behaviour. Her comment is a stark reminder of a practical and functional attitude towards clothing, and of patriarchal dominance.
The full length film can be viewed here. It is a profound and perspective-inducing film that is equally compelling and educational. Further clothing recycling information is available here. For information about the sustainable fashion effort in the UK, click here.
I am a hybrid. I began my career as a radiographer (x-raying and scanning patients) before studying fashion design and pattern-cutting. Upon graduation I worked simultaneously in hospitals and fashion studios, leading me to launch a fashion label in 2009, creating digital knitwear inspired by CT and MRI scans, named Brooke Roberts. I am now a designer, consultant, lecturer and blogger with a fascination for combining science, technology and fashion, both in a real and imagined sense. Anything is possible.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND ROBOTICS are generally met with a mixture of fascination and fear. They’re certainly hot topics – Google car is the most recent high profile example, telling us that AI and robotics are developing quickly and will soon become part of our everyday lives.
Twitter fed me an intriguing tweet about a Robotics event called TAROS being hosted by The University of Liverpool Computer Science Department, headed by Professor Katie Atkinson. TAROS was open to the public and aimed at de-mystifying AI and robotics and sharing advances and potential uses for it. I couldn’t make it to TAROS but Professor Atkinson and the team agreed to an interview on another day and so begins Techstyler, a blog about science, technology and style.
My pre-reading led me to this summary about AI: it is aimed at having computers make decisions for us by analysing many factors (more than we could digest), in a quicker timeframe than we could analyse them, and coming up with an answer or series of solutions. In other words, it streamlines the decision making process – so AI is not such a scary concept.
When it comes to robotics, it’s a common misconception that all robots are human-like, or at least that that’s the end goal of robotics. In truth, many robots are built and programmed to do one very specific task and do not have any interactive or independent processing capability. For example, they might pick up a pen from a conveyor belt and put it in a box. They will repeat the exact same action over and over – even if a human moves into their path, they will continue their programmed action. Since killing people is NOT the aim of robots, this limitation is something that the team in the SmartLab at The University of Liverpool are working to solve, amongst many others.
Professor Atkinson (who introduced herself as Katie and is informal and very approachable) took me behind the scenes at the SmartLab to meet the team including PhD students Bastian Boecker, Joscha-David Fossel and Daniel Claes which is headed up by Professor Karl Tuyls. The SmartLab team are exploring how we can take robots away from the static limited industrial type to the type that move around and interact with their environment; they can be programmed to work in groups, based on biological models – like the way bees and ants work together – and they can use laser and infrared technology to understand where they are to detect objects and the presence of humans.
The guys in the SmartLab
The SmartLab team awards including the RoboCup Championship trophy, 2014
I spend an afternoon chatting to the guys in the SmartLab about their work and messing about with their robots, leaving me inspired and full of wonder (and them further behind in their PhD work). They were really generous not just with their time, but in sharing their knowledge. This is something that always humbles and inspires me in science – it exists to share knowledge and enlighten. By contrast, the creative industries, and fashion in particular, can be very secretive and exclusive which may explain why, in many ways, it is resistant to change and evolution, paradoxically. I talk about this in another upcoming blogpost with designer Sarah Angold, so stay tuned.
Daniel begins by telling me about RoboCup@work and the robots they’re developing with the aim of helping humans in a factory and advancing away from the static pre-programmed robot arms (which are really huge, heavy, limited to one action and housed in cages surrounded by lasers) to robots that can reason and react to their environment. Total re-programming of static robots is required when the production or task changes within a factory, so this is an inconvenient and expensive limitation.
The robot prototype (featured in the video below and as yet unnamed – I ask why?!) is not static but on wheels and is able to analyse its environment and carry out a given task in response to its environment. In this case, Daniel types in commands and the robot then responds to a specific request to pick up a bolt and nut from a table and drop them in the corresponding shaped holes at another table nearby. It uses a camera to scan its environment (it has a set of environmental objects which it has been programmed to recognise) and collects then moves and drops the correct objects. Here it is in action:
I took a couple of snaps of the pieces the robot picks up and the respective shapes the robot drops them into (Literal footnote: My boots are Dr Martens X Mark Wigan):
The items the robot chooses from
The respective shapes the robot drops the items into
My thoughts turn to the use of robots in fashion. Perhaps the most beautiful and arresting use of robots in fashion so far has been Alexander McQueen’s haunting SS 1999 show:
The choreography of the robot arms excites my imagination, like snakes priming to attack. The industrial robots in the McQueen show are the type used to paint cars in a manufacturing plant. I start wondering how robots could impact the fashion industry once the development the SmartLab guys are doing becomes accessible, particularly since biological algorithms are being used to develop robots that could potentially interact as a ‘choreographed group’.
Bastian is working on swarm robotics, which means having a bunch of robots that are controlled by themselves using really simple (I laugh and remind Bastian that’s a relative term) algorithms based on attraction and repulsion – just the same way a flock of birds form a swarm as a group, rather than from a centralised source. They are really robust, for example you can take a couple of robots out of the system and the flock will still work. Bastian imagines his flock being used for planetary exploration with a more localised connectivity, rather than for broadband-based military-type operations. Katie further explains that having many small robots that are interlinked means that if one robot breaks down the others can continue exploring – the mission isn’t scuppered. Motion sensor-based communication between robots allows them to spread and cover a large area – for example an earthquake disaster zone – and scan the terrain for movement or people.
The main source of inspiration for Bastian’s algorithms that “drive” the robots is bees and ants. Both bees and ants use pheromone communication. Bees use a dance for navigation which involves going back and forth to the beehive once they have found food, to demonstrate to other bees the vector pathway to the food source. Bastian shows me a really cool video of how he and the SmartLab team created “bee robots” to perform this dance:
“Bee robots” in the SmartLab
Imagine the use of swarm algorithms to create choreographed robot runway models. The swarm algorithms would be supported by the development Joscha is doing on “state estimation” – the goal that a robot should know exactly where it is in relation to other things.
The runway robot models would know where they are in relation to each and could use lasers to interact with the crowd, making ‘eye contact’ with viewers and giving them a wink or cocking a hip. I’d love to see that. I’m re-imagining the Thierry Mugler show in George Michael’s Music Video “Too Funky” with robots as the models.
**Incidentally, this is the video that made me realise I loved fashion and wanted to work in the industry, back in 1992)**
Robot Naomi, anyone??
Naomi Campbell by Seb Janiak
Maybe I’ll start the first ever robot model agency? It may at first seem bizarre, but it would solve the problem of real people trying to achieve unreal proportions. I am not for a second saying I think the modelling profession is doomed or needs replacing (maybe just disrupting), I just think there’s merit in an alternative. If you think about the way the industry currently works, editorial images are manipulated often to extreme non-human proportions (again, this can be creatively interesting, so I’m not dismissing it entirely) but the human aspect is significantly diminished.
Another area of biological algorithms Bastian is working on is replication of ants’ passive technique of dropping pheromones to communicate with each other. This could be applied to digital pheromones designed to mimic this communication to divide labour between robots and solve complex problems. Robots can’t create biological pheremones but there is development being done in this area. Imaging adding the ability to exude pheromones to runway robot models and a whole new heady mix of interaction and attraction is possible. Here’s a demo of the digital pheromone communication concept:
The discussion moves to flying robots and Joscha explains further that State Estimation currently works well on ground robots, but with flying robots it gets more difficult because of the extra dimension of tilt/pitch. X-box Kinect has a 3D camera that can be used on these type of robot prototypes. Laser scanners can also be used to give plane of distance measurements. Based on the time it takes for the laser light to reflect back off the surface of the objects surrounding it, the robot’s distance from those objects can be calculated. It makes me think of medical imaging and OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) technology, where it’s possible to use a laser inside of an artery to measure its dimensions – this is exactly the same principle, so I immediately get what Joscha is on about. Using the laser scanners, Josche’s flying robots generate 3D maps:
I mention drones at this point and Katie explains that they avoid the term because of a general perception of military use, and instead use UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles). It occurs to me again at this point that it must be a difficult and uphill battle to promote their advances in AI and robotics when such misconceptions exist. Joscha shows me his flying UAV which uses silver reflective 3M tape as markers (which, coincidentally, I have used in yarn-form for knitting) to understand it’s exact location. It is connected to a large geometric pitchfork-like object with silver balls on the end which allow me to direct it through the air with sweeping arm movements. Here are the guys in action:
Joscha’s UAV with silver 3M balls
A jumper from my AW11 knitwear collection with 3M yarn and camel hair
The flying UAV makes me think of a video I saw recently of the brilliant Disney illustrator Glen Keane, who wore a VR headset and stepped into his illustrations using sweeping arm movements with a paddle to draw in the virtual space around him. He immersed himself in his drawing and saw his illustrations in real time, 3D. The video of him ‘stepping into the page’ is well worth a look. So I guess I made an invisible air drawing with a robot.
I ask Katie whether there are barriers to spreading an accurate message about the work being done in AI and she cites “science fiction stories of dystopian societies where the robots take over” as a big source of misconception. She is a passionate ambassador for AI, working on the research topic of ‘AI and law’ for over 10 years. She has been working with a local law firm for the past year to expand their use of AI and enable huge amounts of legal information to be analysed quickly and provide accurate and fast solutions. The whole impetus behind AI is problem solving. It’s about making our world a better and safer place, for example in disaster relief situations and with self-driving cars. Katie shares some data on road traffic accidents: 97% of accidents are caused by human error. That’s a compelling statistic. Who doesn’t want to be safer on the road? For the record, Katie tells me that self-driving cars, like those being developed by Google and Bosch, are expected to be launched in stages from partial self-driving initially, to 100% self-drive in the final stage. So it won’t mean jumping into a vehicle and immediately relinquishing control.
Katie also shared with me some cool robots created by her Computer Science undergraduate students using Lego Mindstorms that demonstrate the concept of the self-driving car.
The ‘car’ has sensors on each side and at the front. The sensors detect the lines on the board (road) and adjust their direction and speed accordingly in order to stay within the black lines (stay on the road) and speed up when they pass over the green lines and slow down/stop when they pass over the red. They are programmed with code written by the students and uploaded directly from a PC into the basic computer box that comes with the Lego Mindstorm kit. Pretty ingenious.
I’m writing up this post while attending London Fashion Week, which has just relocated from Somerset House to the Brewer Street Car Park in Soho, on a pokey corner of a one-way street causing a crammed carnival/circus atmosphere and serious logistical issues. I wonder if Google car could solve this problem? Maybe editor-sized Google self-driving pods could locate their editor by GPS and navigate them quickly from one show to another while they focus on updating their Twitter and Instagram rather than worrying about traffic jams. It would be a kind of cross between Google car and GM Holden’s Xiao – EN-V electric pod, charging itself in between shows. There’s no way those big old Mercedes cars that have been the long-term ferrying service for LFW editors and buyers are going to get in and out of town fast enough with the new LFW location. The frustration at LFW was palpable outside the shows.
So what can’t AI do? I ask Katie about the use of AI and robotics in the creative industries. Her response, “people regard this as the great separation between man and machine – the ability to be creative”, leaves me feeling relieved my job as a designer is safe. Interestingly, a large part of Katie’s research work has involved categorising objective versus subjective information and determining how that information should be used in AI.
In terms of creative use of AI, examples exist in the gaming and film industries. In the Lord of the Rings movies, programmers used crowd algorithms based on AI to program CGI characters in groups to move and interact together, rather than programming individual characters which then need to be programmed to interact with each other (that’s a lot of programming!)
So where is AI and robot technology headed? What’s next? Joscha pipes up and says he would like a robot at the supermarket that can collect everything he wants and bring it back to him. That sounds like a weird and wonderful space to be in – robots and humans shopping alongside each other. Katie then mentions the garment folding robot – this technology strikes me as useful for garment manufacturing (and at home, obviously). The current incarnation folds one item quite well, but the SmartLab team are all about robots being able to not only fold the item, but then move across the warehouse and pack it. I personally would love to have a pattern-cutting robot to work alongside of me tracing-off and cutting out clean, final versions of patterns I have created and digitising them as it goes.
As I finish writing up this blog post, sipping on a cup of coffee that (I’m ashamed to admit) I just reheated in the microwave and I wonder how people felt about microwave ovens when they were first introduced. Maybe there’s a similarity with AI or any new industry-changing technology? People fear it because they don’t understand it but once they see how useful it is that fear subsides. Elementary, my dear Watson.