A new way to grow vegetables on space missions

BY Katharine Schwab < 1 MINUTE READ

As astronauts begin to spend more time in space, they will need better access to fresh fruits and vegetables to stay healthy. But growing plants on structures like the International Space Station is no small task: If you were to try watering them in the conventional fashion, droplets would go everywhere. To develop a new planter, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) tapped Techshot, a company that develops equipment for human spaceflight, and Tupperware, a company with decades of experience in mass-producing food-safe plastics. Harnessing the way plants naturally absorb water through soil (a process called capillary action), the new Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) requires astronauts to use a syringe to insert about 17 fluid ounces (around 503 millilitres) of water into the planter’s base. Then, felt-like mats slowly absorb water and distribute it right to the seedling while it establishes roots in a nutrient-rich, clay-like material called arcillite, which is typically found on baseball diamonds.

NASA launched seven PONDS modules to the International Space Station in April 2018, where the astronauts used them to grow red romaine lettuce. A year later, NASA launched 12 more pods that the Tupperware team had refined further, addressing feedback from the astronauts, such as that the pods had been providing
too much water to the seedlings. Now, Tupperware is finalising the modules so they can be mass-manufactured for future spaceflights—as well as our own kitchen countertops. “If we can grow fresh fruits and veggies in the kitchen that people can harvest immediately, that’s right on trend,” says David Kusuma, head of research and product innovation at Tupperware.

Article originally appeared in Fast Company SA‘s December/January issue, now on sale. 


Apple may have just copied one of Instagram and Snapchat’s most fundamental features

BY Katharine Schwab 2 MINUTE READ

Lots of people take pictures through Instagram and Snapchat, both of which use a similar camera interface: You tap a button to take pictures and hold it down to take a video.

Now, Apple’s native camera app for the iPhone 11 series is adopting the same functionality that these social media apps have long used. At Apple’s annual September hardware event, the company announced a new feature called Quick Take: While taking snapshots, you’ll now be able to simply hold down the shutter button to capture a video without swiping to the side to change modes.

It’s a small shift, but it shows that Apple is responding to the ways people are taking photos and videos in their everyday lives. The iPhone’s venerable camera interface doesn’t facilitate quick switching between taking photos and video while on the go: It’s easy to accidentally take a video when you meant to take a photo, and vice versa. This feature should help eliminate some of that confusion while using an already established interface many people will be familiar with.

Along with Quick Take, the new iPhones also support the sometimes silly photos people like to share on social media with a new photo feature—which the company decided to preemptively dub the “slofie”—that lets you take slow-motion video using your front-facing camera. The slow-motion selfie is now possible because of upgrades to the selfie cam and looks like the kind of effect you might want to post on an Instagram Story.

The feature might be a hit, since it’s currently complicated to create a slow-motion video of yourself to post on social media. But the name certainly is not. Lesson number one: If you’re a multi-billion-dollar corporation, maybe don’t try to give features like this a cutesy name instead of letting one arise organically. Predictably, Twitter was full of people groaning after the announcement:

Even though Apple might be trying to be hip like the kids these days, it’s certainly paying attention to social media as a crucial part of people’s usage of smartphones—and is designing its interfaces accordingly.

Article originally published on fastcompany.com


3 Reasons Why AI Will Never Match Human Creativity

BY Katharine Schwab 3 MINUTE READ

Neural networks – a common type of artificial intelligence – are infiltrating every aspect of our lives, powering the internet-connected devices in our homes, the algorithms that dictate what we see online, and even the computational systems in our cars. But according to an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Big Data & Society by Anton Oleinik, a sociology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, there’s one crucial area where neural networks do not outperform humans: creativity.

Researchers have projected that automation may claim 800 million jobs around the world by 2030. But amid all the handwringing about robots taking people’s jobs, Oleinik’s analysis is further evidence that AI will likely only replace repetitive tasks that humans aren’t particularly skilled at to begin with. Even as AI creeps into creative fields, it is still only doing the work of recommending ideas to a human designer, who is spared some of his or her job’s mindlessness but still makes the final call about what a website or app will look like.

So why are neural nets so bad at being creative? Neural networks are machine learning algorithms composed of layers of calculations that excel at ingesting vast amounts of data and finding every pattern within them. They fundamentally rely on statistical regression – which means that while they’re good at identifying patterns, they fail miserably to anticipate when a pattern will change, let alone connect one pattern to an unrelated pattern, a crucial ingredient in creativity. “Scholars in science and technology studies consider the capacity to trace linkages between heterogeneous and previously unconnected elements as a distinctive human social activity,” Oleinik writes. Unfortunately, creativity would be impossible without radical predictions, something regression analysis will never be able to do.

Second, because all patterns appear to be meaningful to an algorithm based purely on how prevalent they are in the data, neural networks fail to distinguish between which patterns are meaningful and which aren’t – an additional foundational element of creativity. Computers may come up with novel ideas, but they may not be valuable ideas because value is a collective agreement, dictated by groups of people.

Finally, because neural networks do not understand, let alone incorporate, outside context, they are unable to make adjustments based on social norms and interactions beyond the realm of their specific purpose and data set. In other words, they lack social intelligence, which is important for creativity since, “innovations are often embedded in social connections and relationships,” Oleinik says. For instance, an algorithm that is analysing patterns among corporate leaders may well conclude that being male is an essential element of being a leader – something that is based on a history of bias and is socially agreed upon to be false.

As a result, he thinks that because neural networks are inferior to humans when it comes to identifying and interpreting symbols, acting socially, and making predictions, he doubts that neural net-powered artificial creativity will ever be able to match human creativity. “Creativity is hardly possible without one’s capacity to think metaphorically, to co-ordinate proactively and to make predictions that go beyond simple extrapolation,” Oleinik argues.

However, that doesn’t mean that neural nets aren’t excellent mimickers of creativity. “In the words of a sociologist,” Oleinik writes, “a robot powered by neural networks may be a good [a]ctor, i.e. someone who closely follows the script, but not a [s]ubject, i.e. someone who meaningfully changes and rewrites the imposed rules.”

For instance, a neural net would be excellent at studying all of Picasso’s paintings and producing a new work that copies the famed artist’s style. In fact, many contemporary artists have played with neural networks in exactly this way, creating new portraits that look like they could have been painted by an old master but are in fact computer-generated.

But what a neural net may never be able to do is look at Picasso’s paintings and respond to them in a way that meaningfully adds to the artistic conversation by generating new patterns. The neural net itself can never be in dialogue with the artistic past without a human there to give it intent – it is only a shallow imitator, devoid of true meaning. As prominent AI artist Mario Klingemann pointed out when his first AI artwork was up for auction, he is the artist, not the computer.

Ultimately, neural nets are not designed for creativity. Instead, they are designed for a world with clean, precise data. Oleinik points out that in a neural net’s ideal world, you remove data’s messiness – messiness that often comes from the unpredictability of human creativity. Take, for example, the optimal situation in which to create self-driving cars: roads where everybody, be they human or machine, follows the rules to a T, where there is no randomness whatsoever and everything is entirely predictable. Relinquishing human freedom on the road might be a trade-off that we’re willing to accept if it means that there are no more traffic accidents, but Oleinik points out that a broader scheme to reduce human predictability is not only Orwellian; it would have to stamp out creativity altogether to function.

It’s clear that for the time being, creativity will remain squarely the domain of humans. And perhaps, given neural nets’ inability to make creative inferences, interpret meaning, or understand social context, it should stay that way.

Originally published on fastcompany.com


What is biophilic design, and can it really make you happier and healthier?

BY Katharine Schwab 5 MINUTE READ

Recently, a quiet revolution has begun to change the way people think about their spaces, both at home and at work. It centers on the idea that the great indoors should mimic the great outdoors to improve people’s lives–an insight that is backed up with increasing amounts of research.

Biophilic design dates back to the early 1980s, when the biologist Edward O. Wilson outlined his philosophy of biophilia, hypothesizing that humans have an innate, biological affinity for the natural world. Biophilic design takes this idea one step further: Because humans today spend 90% of our time indoors, according to the 2001 National Human Activity Pattern Survey, it’s necessary to bring the outdoors in and create indoor environments that reference nature in both obvious and subtle ways.

At the simplest level, that means plants–and lots of them. This trend has even helped spur a boom in startups catering to plant-obsessed millennials in urban areas, where demand is so great growers report that they can’t keep up. But biophilic design is more than just adding plants to indoor spaces. It’s an ethos that poses interior design not merely as an aesthetic or functional discipline, but as a way to improve people’s mental and physical well-being.

[Photo: Jason Briscoe/Unsplash]


The biophilic design craze has been fueled by a host of scientific studies that indicate that being closer to nature, whether that’s in the form of houseplants or natural light, is beneficial for your health. A landmark 2019 study found that children in Denmark who had been exposed to more greenery had 55% less mental health problems later in life compared to those who weren’t exposed to nature. Other research has shown that plants can reduce stresshelp with focus, and even increase immunity.

Studies have also tied plants to productivity. In a series of two studies, researchers in Norway found that subjects who did reading and attention-based tasks surrounded by greenery improved their scores more over time than subjects who didn’t. How does this work? One idea is called “attention restoration theory”: We spend a lot of time at work in intense focus, which leads to mental fatigue. Spending even a few seconds ripping your eyes from your screen to stare at a desk plant could help give your mind a break and restore your ability to focus. This has led companies like GoogleEtsy, and many more to embrace biophilic design as a means of making employees happier, more creative, and harder working. Living walls in tech company offices are so common that they’ve become a design cliché. Furniture companies now design office tables and desks with planters built in.

Today’s plant companies are also touting the air purification benefits of houseplants, but that’s more hype than reality. A report from The Atlantic pointed out that you would need to put 1,000 houseplants in a 10-foot-by-10-foot office to effectively clean the air. Plants might be making you happier, but generally they’re not pulling nearly enough pollution out of the air for that to be an effective reason to spend more time around them. That said, one New Delhi office space features four times as many plants as people thanks to a greenhouse designed to clean the heavily polluted interior air in India’s capital city–and the Indian government says research shows it makes employees healthier.

[Photo: 贝莉儿 NG/Unsplash]


Unsurprisingly, designers of coworking spaces and offices have been early adopters. The Portugal outpost of the coworking space Second Home’s claim to fame is that it is home to more than 2,000 plants, with the goal of both providing visual and acoustic privacy as well as cashing in on all the benefits associated with being close to plants. “Everything we do at Second Home is inspired by nature and biophilia,” Rohan Silva, one of the coworking space’s founders, told Fast Company in 2017. “There are no straight lines in the designs because there are no straight lines in nature. It’s also why every chair and desk lamp is different–this reflects the fractal complexity you find in nature, where every leaf and snowflake is shaped differently.”

Google in particular has experimented with skylights to provide more natural light, added more plants to its spaces, and even tried changing the wallpaper and carpet to more natural patterns–which the company claims has helped its employees focus better and be more creative and productive. “One of the big differences between office environments and being outdoors is the amount of variability in the sensory stimulation,” Mikhail Davis, whose company provided some of Google’s nature-focused carpets, told Fast Company back in 2015. “A traditional office environment is a constant temperature, lots of the same colors, same textures, same humidity . . . If you’re outside, these vary throughout the day, and that’s what’s producing a lot of these benefits.”

Not all companies are able to provide their employees with workplaces that help them connect to nature. Others take shortcuts: One company is making a fake window inset with video screens to conjure the appearance of a skylight into dark office spaces.

[Photo: Faisal Khalid/Unsplash]


Yes–its influence goes beyond traditional interior design for homes and offices. It’s also been particularly effective in the design of healthcare facilities. The pediatrics ward of a hospital in Washington has a healing garden where patients and their families can relax. An oncology center in Anaheim, California, is oriented so patients will always have views of a zen garden outside, while a hospital in Toronto provides views of a park from every patient room. Other cancer centers look more like treehouses than hospitals. That’s because studies have shown that having access to nature can help patients heal faster.

[Photo: Ivar Kvaal/courtesy Snøhetta]

That idea is perhaps taken to its logical conclusion in a new Snohetta-designed cabin located in the adjacent forest to Oslo University Hospital in Norway. Children and their families can book the cabin as a respite from their normal patient rooms. Because some patients aren’t well enough to spend time outdoors, the cabin offers them the next best thing, with wooden interiors and porthole-like windows.

You don’t have to be in a forest to reap the health benefits of biophilic design. Parsley Health, a new startup that recently opened its first clinic in New York, drew heavily on biophilic design when planning the space. The Manhattan clinic is dotted with plants, floor-to-ceiling windows that drench the space with natural light, natural materials like wood, and even a light and greenery installation that adjusts based on the season and time of day. The design team based its work on a guide to biophilic design, structured around 14 core elements, published by the environmental consulting and strategic planning firm Terrapin Bright Green in 2014. Those principles include features that are often overlooked in building design, like creating long vistas to give visitors a sense of perspective within an interior space. In Parsley’s case, the circadian lighting installation is located at the end of a long hallway to create this vibe.

The biophilic design movement extends to entire developments and even cities. Scientists think that plants could act like sensors to help keep tabs on things like mold and volatile organic compounds in our buildings. A 2016 report from the engineering firm Arup argues that buildings should all be covered with greenery as a way of pulling carbon dioxide from the air, filtering air pollution, reducing noise, and keeping cities cooler. The Biophilic Cities project aims to showcase how different cities are increasing their residents’ access to green space, whether that’s through parks or less conventional means, like rooftop gardens.

All of us are better off when we have more nature in our lives. Biophilic design simply recognizes that truth and helps to make our interior spaces, our buildings, and even our cities a little less gray and a little more green.

Originally published on fastcompany.com