How technology is shaping the world around us

01Aug17

by MATTHEW HAGUE

Designers can use algorithm-based software or MRIs to come up with goods not constrained by biases

Hillside Studio by Cover. Every design is custom generated based on client wishes, as well as geospatial and zoning data.

Hillside Studio by Los Angeles design firm Cover. The company’s designs are custom generated based on client wishes, as well as geospatial and zoning data.

Computer-aided design, or CAD, programs are as new to the world as bell-bottom pants and disco. Architects and designers started trading in their mechanical pencils and drafting tables in the 1970s – around the same time computerized dating started to vie for the place traditionally held by boozy nightclubs and well-meaning matchmakers (hi, grandma).

These days, though, the technology has been updated so drastically that it would be hard to compare the current incarnations to its predecessors (it would be a bit like putting a Tesla next to a Pinto). More than merely assisting creative professionals draw out their ideas, software programs are now helping generate the very ideas and products themselves. Computers are coming up with building layouts, package designs and furniture that are as creative or better than what humans can envision on their own.

“It’s a radical departure from what we’ve been using for the last 40 years,” says Francesco Iorio, director of computational science research at Autodesk, which develops CAD software. Later this year, a program that Iorio has been working on called Generative Design will hit the market, and, according to him, will act more like “an actual partner” in the design process rather than a passive tool. In effect, designers will be able to ask the software questions and get optimal answers back.

The program has already produced a muscular, Gaudi-esque chair called the Elbo.

Rather than coming up with the shape of the seat themselves, a design team used the software to determine the best structure given certain parameters – height, material, loads.

The legs and arms mimic forms found in nature, such as bones, which have been optimized through evolution to withstand the forces of the world. In essence, the program came up with a design “that was most fit to survive,” says Iorio, by learning from the world around it.

“The results can be surprising,” says Iorio, “because the program isn’t constrained by biases.”

Such algorithm-based software is also a way of developing mass-customized goods – broadly available items that are uniquely different for each shopper.

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