‘Machine Learning for Designers’ workshop

On Wednesday Péter Kun, Holly Robbins and myself taught a one-day workshop on machine learning at Delft University of Technology. We had about thirty master’s students from the industrial design engineering faculty. The aim was to get them acquainted with the technology through hands-on tinkering with the Wekinator as central teaching tool.

Photo credits: Holly Robbins
Photo credits: Holly Robbins


The reasoning behind this workshop is twofold.

On the one hand I expect designers will find themselves working on projects involving machine learning more and more often. The technology has certain properties that differ from traditional software. Most importantly, machine learning is probabilistic in stead of deterministic. It is important that designers understand this because otherwise they are likely to make bad decisions about its application.

The second reason is that I have a strong sense machine learning can play a role in the augmentation of the design process itself. So-called intelligent design tools could make designers more efficient and effective. They could also enable the creation of designs that would otherwise be impossible or very hard to achieve.

The workshop explored both ideas.

Photo credits: Holly Robbins
Photo credits: Holly Robbins


The structure was roughly as follows:

In the morning we started out providing a very broad introduction to the technology. We talked about the very basic premise of (supervised) learning. Namely, providing examples of inputs and desired outputs and training a model based on those examples. To make these concepts tangible we then introduced the Wekinator and walked the students through getting it up and running using basic examples from the website. The final step was to invite them to explore alternative inputs and outputs (such as game controllers and Arduino boards).

In the afternoon we provided a design brief, asking the students to prototype a data-enabled object with the set of tools they had acquired in the morning. We assisted with technical hurdles where necessary (of which there were more than a few) and closed out the day with demos and a group discussion reflecting on their experiences with the technology.

Photo credits: Holly Robbins
Photo credits: Holly Robbins


As I tweeted on the way home that evening, the results were… interesting.

Not all groups managed to put something together in the admittedly short amount of time they were provided with. They were most often stymied by getting an Arduino to talk to the Wekinator. Max was often picked as a go-between because the Wekinator receives OSC messages over UDP, whereas the quickest way to get an Arduino to talk to a computer is over serial. But Max in my experience is a fickle beast and would more than once crap out on us.

The groups that did build something mainly assembled prototypes from the examples on hand. Which is fine, but since we were mainly working with the examples from the Wekinator website they tended towards the interactive instrument side of things. We were hoping for explorations of IoT product concepts. For that more hand-rolling was required and this was only achievable for the students on the higher end of the technical expertise spectrum (and the more tenacious ones).

The discussion yielded some interesting insights into mental models of the technology and how they are affected by hands-on experience. A comment I heard more than once was: Why is this considered learning at all? The Wekinator was not perceived to be learning anything. When challenged on this by reiterating the underlying principles it became clear the black box nature of the Wekinator hampers appreciation of some of the very real achievements of the technology. It seems (for our students at least) machine learning is stuck in a grey area between too-high expectations and too-low recognition of its capabilities.

Next steps

These results, and others, point towards some obvious improvements which can be made to the workshop format, and to teaching design students about machine learning more broadly.

  1. We can improve the toolset so that some of the heavy lifting involved with getting the various parts to talk to each other is made easier and more reliable.
  2. We can build examples that are geared towards the practice of designing IoT products and are ready for adaptation and hacking.
  3. And finally, and probably most challengingly, we can make the workings of machine learning more transparent so that it becomes easier to develop a feel for its capabilities and shortcomings.

We do intend to improve and teach the workshop again. If you’re interested in hosting one (either in an educational or professional context) let me know. And stay tuned for updates on this and other efforts to get designers to work in a hands-on manner with machine learning.

Special thanks to the brilliant Ianus Keller for connecting me to Péter and for allowing us to pilot this crazy idea at IDE Academy.


Sources used during preparation and running of the workshop:

  • The Wekinator – the UI is infuriatingly poor but when it comes to getting started with machine learning this tool is unmatched.
  • Arduino – I have become particularly fond of the MKR1000 board. Add a lithium-polymer battery and you have everything you need to prototype IoT products.
  • OSC for Arduino – CNMAT’s implementation of the open sound control (OSC) encoding. Key puzzle piece for getting the above two tools talking to each other.
  • Machine Learning for Designers – my preferred introduction to the technology from a designerly perspective.
  • A Visual Introduction to Machine Learning – a very accessible visual explanation of the basic underpinnings of computers applying statistical learning.
  • Remote Control Theremin – an example project I prepared for the workshop demoing how to have the Wekinator talk to an Arduino MKR1000 with OSC over UDP.

High-skill robots, low-skill workers

Some notes on what I think I understand about technology and inequality.

Let’s start with an obvious big question: is technology destroying jobs faster than they can be replaced? On the long term the evidence isn’t strong. Humans always appear to invent new things to do. There is no reason this time around should be any different.

But in the short term technology has contributed to an evaporation of mid-skilled jobs. Parts of these jobs are automated entirely, parts can be done by fewer people because of higher productivity gained from tech.

While productivity continues to grow, jobs are lagging behind. The year 2000 appears to have been a turning point. “Something” happened around that time. But no-one knows exactly what.

My hunch is that we’ve seen an emergence of a new class of pseudo-monopolies. Oligopolies. And this is compounded by a ‘winner takes all’ dynamic that technology seems to produce.

Others have pointed to globalisation but although this might be a contributing factor, the evidence does not support the idea that it is the major cause.

So what are we left with?

Historically, looking at previous technological upsets, it appears education makes a big difference. People negatively affected by technological progress should have access to good education so that they have options. In the US the access to high quality education is not equally divided.

Apparently family income is associated with educational achievement. So if your family is rich, you are more likely to become a high skilled individual. And high skilled individuals are privileged by the tech economy.

And if Piketty’s is right, we are approaching a reality in which money made from wealth rises faster than wages. So there is a feedback loop in place which only exacerbates the situation.

One more bullet: If you think trickle-down economics, increasing the size of the pie will help, you might be mistaken. It appears social mobility is helped more by decreasing inequality in the distribution of income growth.

So some preliminary conclusions: a progressive tax on wealth won’t solve the issue. The education system will require reform, too.

I think this is the central irony of the whole situation: we are working hard to teach machines how to learn. But we are neglecting to improve how people learn.

Move 37

Designers make choices. They should be able to provide rationales for those choices. (Although sometimes they can’t.) Being able to explain the thinking that went into a design move to yourself, your teammates and clients is part of being a professional.

Move 37. This was the move AlphaGo made which took everyone by surprise because it appeared so wrong at first.

The interesting thing is that in hindsight it appeared AlphaGo had good reasons for this move. Based on a calculation of odds, basically.

If asked at the time, would AlphaGo have been able to provide this rationale?

It’s a thing that pops up in a lot of the reading I am doing around AI. This idea of transparency. In some fields you don’t just want an AI to provide you with a decision, but also with the arguments supporting that decision. Obvious examples would include a system that helps diagnose disease. You want it to provide more than just the diagnosis. Because if it turns out to be wrong, you want to be able to say why at the time you thought it was right. This is a social, cultural and also legal requirement.

It’s interesting.

Although lives don’t depend on it, the same might apply to intelligent design tools. If I am working with a system and it is offering me design directions or solutions, I want to know why it is suggesting these things as well. Because my reason for picking one over the other depends not just on the surface level properties of the design but also the underlying reasons. It might be important because I need to be able to tell stakeholders about it.

An added side effect of this is that a designer working with such a system is be exposed to machine reasoning about design choices. This could inform their own future thinking too.

Transparent AI might help people improve themselves. A black box can’t teach you much about the craft it’s performing. Looking at outcomes can be inspirational or helpful, but the processes that lead up to them can be equally informative. If not more so.

Imagine working with an intelligent design tool and getting the equivalent of an AlphaGo move 37 moment. Hugely inspirational. Game changer.

This idea gets me much more excited than automating design tasks does.

Adapting intelligent tools for creativity

I read Alper’s book on conversational user interfaces over the weekend and was struck by this paragraph:

“The holy grail of a conversational system would be one that’s aware of itself — one that knows its own model and internal structure and allows you to change all of that by talking to it. Imagine being able to tell Siri to tone it down a bit with the jokes and that it would then actually do that.”

His point stuck with me because I think this is of particular importance to creative tools. These need to be flexible so that a variety of people can use them in different circumstances. This adaptability is what lends a tool depth.

The depth I am thinking of in creative tools is similar to the one in games, which appears to be derived from a kind of semi-orderedness. In short, you’re looking for a sweet spot between too simple and too complex.

And of course, you need good defaults.

Back to adaptation. This can happen in at least two ways on the interface level: modal or modeless. A simple example of the former would be to go into a preferences window to change the behaviour of your drawing package. Similarly, modeless adaptation happens when you rearrange some panels to better suit the task at hand.

Returning to Siri, the equivalence of modeless adaptation would be to tell her to tone it down when her sense of humor irks you.

For the modal solution, imagine a humor slider in a settings screen somewhere. This would be a terrible solution because it offers a poor mapping of a control to a personality trait. Can you pinpoint on a scale of 1 to 10 your preferred amount of humor in your hypothetical personal assistant? And anyway, doesn’t it depend on a lot of situational things such as your mood, the particular task you’re trying to complete and so on? In short, this requires something more situated and adaptive.

So just being able to tell Siri to tone it down would be the equivalent of rearranging your Photoshop palets. And in a next interaction Siri might carefully try some humor again to gauge your response. And if you encourage her, she might be more humorous again.

Enough about funny Siri for now because it’s a bit of a silly example.

Funny Siri, although she’s a bit of a Silly example, does illustrate another problem I am trying to wrap my head around. How does an intelligent tool for creativity communicate its internal state? Because it is probabilistic, it can’t be easily mapped to a graphic information display. And so our old way of manipulating state, and more specifically adapting a tool to our needs becomes very different too.

It seems to be best for an intelligent system to be open to suggestions from users about how to behave. Adapting an intelligent creative tool is less like rearranging your workspace and more like coordinating with a coworker.

My ideal is for this to be done in the same mode (and so using the same controls) as when doing the work itself. I expect this to allow for more fluid interactions, going back and forth between doing the work at hand, and meta-communication about how the system supports the work. I think if we look at how people collaborate this happens a lot, communication and meta-communication going on continuously in the same channels.

We don’t need a self-aware artificial intelligence to do this. We need to apply what computer scientists call supervised learning. The basic idea is to provide a system with example inputs and desired outputs, and let it infer the necessary rules from them. If the results are unsatisfactory, you simply continue training it until it performs well enough.

A super fun example of this approach is the Wekinator, a piece of machine learning software for creating musical instruments. Below is a video in which Wekinator’s creator Rebecca Fiebrink performs several demos.

Here we have an intelligent system learning from examples. A person manipulating data in stead of code to get to a particular desired behaviour. But what Wekinator lacks and what I expect will be required for this type of thing to really catch on is for the training to happen in the same mode or medium as the performance. The technology seems to be getting there, but there are many interaction design problems remaining to be solved.