What could a ‘hive mind’ actually look like? It is a question that defines the latest collaboration between Microsoft and experimental architectural designer Jenny Sabin, as part of an Artist in Residence programme that seeks to explore the intersection of the arts, humanity and technology. The result is a responsive AI sculpture installed in the atrium of the company’s campus in Redmond, WA, which would not look out of place on the set of a sci-fi thriller.

The ellipsoid pavilion – which has more than a passing resemblance to a human brain – is formed from a fibreglass exoskeleton containing an intricately woven network of photoluminescent fibers. This light-emitting material has the capacity to pulsate in an array of colours that react to the facial expressions of the people that surround it. This real-time response is achieved by collecting data from several cameras, which scan the emotions of passers-by and catalogue them as either anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, neutral, sadness or surprise. In effect, the interpretation of this data allows the sculpture to ‘smile back’ at its audience (or perhaps sneer), as well as pulsate light patterns in relation to physical movement, crowd size and noise levels.

Jenny Sabin Microsoft sculpture
Ada finished work at Microsoft

Top, Jenny Sabin installing ADA at the Microsoft campus. Bottom, the finished work

This astonishing semi-sentient creation takes inspiration from the work of Ada Lovelace, the pioneering mathematician and computer programmer who foregrounded our digital age.

Knitting is one of the earliest forms of three-dimensional printing and is defined by a form of binary coding that underpinned Lovelace’s research, so it is fitting that the process should play a crucial part in this new technological experiment. Sabine also notes that ‘the project features soft forms that are more feminine versus masculine, and that’s a paradigm shift in architecture.’

Jenny Sabin Microsoft sculpture
Ada Microsoft and Jenny Sabine collaboration, detail view
Detail views of Ada, by Jenny Sabin

Though one should be wary of defining an emotive sculpture as intrinsically ‘feminine’, the collaborative nature of ADA does follow in the footsteps of female thinkers who have used hybrid forms of design to push the parameters of how we interact in the modern age, such as April Greiman and Susan Kare. Both of these designers place human experience at the centre of their practice, and Sabine does the same.

The ability to creatively interpret live data in a way that resonates aesthetically with an audience is no mean feat, but it would be nothing without the people who, for want of a better analogy, are the source material. Sabine hopes people will realise that their engagement drives the various glowing patterns that ebb and flow through ADA, and that ‘the project begins to gain its own life’ through their interaction. §