by Alan Moore on 21st November 2017
Peter Childs, the inspiring Head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London, talks to me about beautiful AI and beautiful automation. What is the connection between the hymn Amazing Grace and the concept of beauty he asked me? I asked, should beauty be taught throughout higher education? I discuss these ideas and more with Peter and how beauty as a lens applies to the world of engineering and beyond.
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I am with Professor Peter Childs who is the head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering here at Imperial College, London. Thanks very much Peter for inviting me along to have a conversation with you.
AM When you first read Do Design you asked me a really interesting and intriguing question and that question was “what is the connection between beauty and the hymn Amazing Grace?” and I would love to know a little bit more, particularly because of your background in science and engineering technology and design why you ask me that question?
PC The hymn Amazing Grace is about gifts and bestowing of something wonderful. In design we bestow or give to the design, hopefully something wonderful and that’s what I thought your book was about as I read it, it was all about bestowing to your design, to your venture, something wonderful, something beautiful.
AM I think that is right, I think that the idea is that everything in this world quite often is manmade, it is designed. We have to arrive at a point when at one point when it doesn’t exist and then we have to envision it, so the idea is that surely we should be able to make that in a way which is uncommon in its grace even if it is an everyday object and I think that I was quite intrigued also by some of the observations that you made about the products and manufacturing, is beauty a lens that maybe engineering and science should be using in it’s own unique way perhaps to think about what it is it makes.
PC Engineering can sometimes be viewed as a partner, or a cousin to design. Sometimes the words engineering and design can be used interchangeably, so I think designers are very aware of the importance of ascetics and by implication beauty, so is it a lens – very much so, that engineers and designers can readily use. Whether we are looking at products, services, systems or the design of experiences I think there is great message there and it is about going beyond just satisfying the clients, it is about giving something that is truly desirable, maybe even truly honourable, again back perhaps to the Amazing Grace hymn.
AM Is there then a language perhaps that we could be using more in our everyday work in engineering or in science where the language of beauty perhaps is not used, or
PC I think there is a huge gap, so you will be onto something here, we talk about rationale, philosophies, aesthetics, ascetics perhaps as well. The concept of beauty tends to be reserved for natural beauties, things which are just bestowed to naturally. Can we actually set out to do something beautiful, I think there is an aspiration worthy of aiming towards that?
AM So, would it be possible to teach beauty in a science and engineering technology school or even a business school, because that is something that is quite clearly not on the curriculum, or our agenda at the moment, what do you say to that?
PC Can we teach beautiful design, beautiful engineering, but it is probably a bit like the subject can we teach, can we teach subjects like creativity. Well, we can certainly augment creativity, and I think beauty would be one of these subjects where could take where people are already at and enhance and augment what they are doing, and I suspect with time actually lift the whole cohort, so that what they are doing in terms of their impact on society could truly be beautiful.
AM I think that is a really, lovely and interesting response to that question. One of the other things that has crossed my mind on the way down to see you today, is of course at the moment artificial intelligence and automation is on every news channel, is in every magazine, in every newspaper, there are people, such as Elon Musk, that say artificial intelligence is a greater threat to our humanity and our existence than maybe even nuclear weapons. I’d really love to know from you what is your opinion and your thoughts on say, beautiful automation, if we use that as a term, how would you respond to that?
PC One of the challenges with AI is that the codes themselves, the algorithms, can build themselves and transmute into new things which you may not have envisaged. Now that can be to your advantage, self-learning code which constantly builds itself, defends itself, transposes itself into something even more useful. Now that sounds positive. It could even be beautiful. How about an AI algorithm that is constantly improving itself to work on behalf of humanity, maybe even taking interventions in order to improve human existence, that itself could be beautiful.
AM I agree, and I think again it is very important perhaps, just to reflect on that idea that just because something new is coming into the world and it quite clearly is, it is not necessarily coming with bad as a natural way. It is a question of then a philosophical framework in terms of how, or what is the purpose that we would like something to work towards. It is a bit like how do you code beauty? It is a question I love to ask and maybe it is why, obviously, there is no one definite answer, but I think it is a very intriguing question to pursue.
PC You, in your book, you are talking about beauty beyond aesthetics and beautiful ideas. So beautiful ideas will have many attributes and one can absolutely imagine developing code that is attribute based that could decide for itself whether a concept, a product, service or system itself is beautiful and then develop upon that depending upon the human condition, or societal condition, at that moment. So, could AI and beautiful outcomes be interlinked, well I as a crude coder can certainly envisage developments along these lines.
A Peter, thank you very much.
P It’s a pleasure.
A Thank you.