Hi Vera! Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? How and why did you combine different disciplines?
Hi! My name's Vera van der Burg. I was born and raised in Amsterdam, where I still live. My interest in the combined arts and sciences? That was already slightly stimulated during my studies. I started with a bachelor's in Liberal Arts & Sciences at Utrecht University. This interdisciplinary study allowed me to combine my major in neuroscience with art history and other disciplines. I've always been bad at making hard and fast choices. So I decided to go the creative route after my bachelor's. Mainly because I was looking for a stimulating, new environment and wanted to indulge my creative side. When I was admitted to the master's in contextual design at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, a new world opened up for me. Suddenly, I was the scientist amongst all these great artists and designers. Because I had no background in design to fall back on, I started to see value in doing creative research at the academy, where research-based design was the leading approach and I combined 'making' and 'thinking'. This allowed me to further develop my interest in combining different disciplines.
You shared your work with us on Instagram through #heyddw. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
I shared images of the research-based design project 'Still Life', which is also my final project from the Design Academy. During that time, I was looking at the potential of artificial intelligence in the design process. I found out that intelligent, self-learning systems, such as object recognition algorithms, are trained in the most objective way possible. This got me thinking: Is it even possible to teach a system an objective version of the world? And is it interesting for a designer to work with 'objective' systems? 'Bias' in machine learning algorithms is one of the most well-known issues surrounding AI. That's why it seemed interesting to me to take this 'bias' as a starting point, and to focus on the subjective potential of AI.
What can a subjectively trained system teach us about the things we make? And how do you actually teach a system a subjective representation of the world? I also wondered what these systems 'see' when they look at the more abstract things in the world. Think of surrealistic art or abstract design objects. I show things like this to object-recognition algorithms, to see how they look at these objects from a machine gaze and if they see things that we humans don't initially see. And whether we can learn anything from that. In the video installation I developed for my final project, you can see a subjective object recognition algorithm at work, trying to interpret the emotional meaning of objects.
Where does your interest in AI and machine learning come from?
In my time as a neuroscientist, I found it incredibly exciting to learn about the human brain. Especially how people can recognize the world and the objects around them in an emotional way. Object recognition is also a subject that I substantively explored during the first year of my master's. When I came into contact with AI during my research, I actually saw all my interests converge.
I see artificial intelligence as a way to design human processes in a computer program. Machine learning requires systems thinking. That, combined with thinking about what it means to be human, really appeals to me. I also find it incredibly fascinating to see how far and quickly these techniques continue to develop.
You are currently working on your PhD at TU Delft. What can you tell us about your research there? Where does the challenge lie for you?
I'm part of a research group, the Designing Intelligence Lab. Together with a group of designers and computer scientists, we are researching how we can use intelligent systems to understand the design process, but also to contribute to it. The long-term goal is to develop new design methods where AI plays a role.
I'm now back in a university environment, and looking at things from a more artistic perspective. That's a challenge. Fortunately, there is room for this. Much in the research is still open and we haven't yet determined exactly where the research will lead. At the moment I'm still exploring the subjective potential of AI, but now more in the field of reflection. I research how, for example, intelligent chatbots can support designers' reflection on their own process. Overall, you could say that I see machine learning as a means of reflection, because you train it on data that may contain unconscious patterns of behaviour. These patterns are then fed back to you, and I think you can learn something from that as a designer (and as a person!).
How do you envision a future where society makes optimal use of AI?
I think it would be cool if we moved into a world with systems that are trained on individuals. A kind of digital twin, who teaches you things about yourself, but who can also help you make choices. I don't see AI as something that will replace humans. Rather, it becomes a supplement for things that people are generally less good at, in a helpful way. AI is extremely good at pattern recognition, better than humans are. So in situations where pattern recognition is really necessary, the use of AI relieves the burden on human ability in my opinion. In the design field, too, I see AI in the future as a kind of supporting tool that helps you find inspiration. Or by making connections in your own creative thinking, which are more difficult to make yourself.
There are also negative opinions about artificial intelligence. How do you view that and how does it influence your work?
I think these negative responses or opinions are mainly based on a fear that has been fed for decades by science fiction stories and sort of ignorance about how machine learning actually works. The systems in themselves are not threatening. And there's certainly no question of 'general intelligence' – a system that functions to the level of human ability. Personally, I think it's fantastic that there are possibilities to automate various human tasks. What we could be afraid of are the organizations that want to use machine learning for certain purposes. I think it's important to always be critical of what the systems are used for and to let experts from different disciplines contribute ideas. Fortunately, this is happening more and more at universities – I myself am a living example of this. And 'ethical AI' is also growing and becoming important. I hope that in the future the development and application of AI will always go hand in hand with a critical, ethical vision from different disciplines.
How has the pandemic affected your work so far? How do you look back on the past year?
I had only graduated 6 months ago when the pandemic hit. I had some exhibitions and was allowed to permanently install the installation in a Russian restaurant. Unfortunately, this has all been cancelled and I suddenly saw how fragile a career as a budding designer can be. Then I started looking for work that was more stable in nature. I soon came across PhD positions. Miraculously, a position opened up that matched my final project to a T and after applying, I started in November 2020. Sometimes I miss the life of a designer and sometimes the academic world is still a bit too rigid for my taste. Too much reading! What is special is that I can research what I find interesting for the next five years and I don't have to worry about an income. The challenge for me lies in continuing my creative pursuits while also publishing research papers. Because when I look back on the past year, I spent more time in front of my laptop than I did designing. Hopefully, I will continue to do creative research at TU that combines making and researching.
If you could choose one person to work with (a designer, politician, artist, scientist, anyone), who would you choose and why?
Oof! Not so easy! I really enjoy collaborations anyway and prefer to work together rather than alone. I like to work with people who are more in the making domain, such as autonomous artists. I think it would be nice to look together at how we could integrate AI into their work – I'm also gradually trying to do this in my own work. But that's not the question. When I look at my interests substantively, I think it would be interesting to work with Studio Drift to see how they can add AI to their installations and more research-based projects. But I would love to make a 'digital twin' of David Hockney for example.
If you could ask yourself a question for this interview, what would it be? And how would you answer it?
One of the questions where I'm still looking for a definitive answer is: Are you a scientist or a designer? For now, I can say that I hope to develop a practice in which these 2 professions actually go hand in hand with each other and can be found in one person. So my hope for the future is that we will move towards a world where the educational system is also focused on this. So no separate art academies and universities, but just 1 institute! For now, I think it's still and a designer and a researcher.
Any news to share with the DDW community?
I'm always looking for new collaborations with designers and artists who enjoy working with AI and who I can use in my own research. Does this seem interesting to you? Feel free to send me a message!