Design the Future
January 19–20, 2016: Training
January 20–22, 2016: Conference
San Francisco, CA

From AI to IA: How AI and architecture created contemporary interaction

Molly Steenson (Carnegie Mellon University)
1:15pm Friday, 01/22/2016
The new fundamentals
Location: Generals Residence Ballroom
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 6 ratings)

Prerequisite knowledge

Attendees should have a fundamental understanding of design, information architecture, or user experience.


As designers, we always talk about the architecture of information and systems. Yet the architectural nature of this connection is more direct than you might imagine. It’s not a metaphor. Our digital design practices today derive from collaborations between architects, designers, and some of the most important names in computing history. Molly Steenson traces this foundational history of interaction, with an eye toward the pressing concerns of designers today.

Starting in the 1960s, architects and designers turned to artificial intelligence and cybernetics as a way to bring objects and spaces to life and to work with computers to change their design processes. They collaborated with AI and computation luminaries to create new, digitally interactive worlds. But it worked the other way, too. Technologists turned to architecture when they needed to address complex problems. This collaborative space between architects, designers, and technologists gave birth to practices that didn’t belong to one field alone: they belonged to a hybrid practice of interactivity, one that is at the core of what we do today.

The subject of an upcoming book, the material in this talk is rare and visually exciting. Much of what Molly shares and shows comes from a decade of in-depth research through archives and technical papers, including:

  • How AI influenced Christopher Alexander, who developed pattern languages that would come to inspire object-oriented conventions on the Web and in software
  • What Douglas Engelbart dreamt an architect would do with a computer, almost 10 years before his famous Mother of All Demos
  • How MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte (an architect) collaborated with AI pioneer Marvin Minsky and MIT’s AI Lab on architectural AI spaces
  • What Richard Saul Wurman really meant by “information architecture” and how we get it wrong
  • How Department of Defense agencies like DARPA and the Office of Naval Research seeded the territory digital architectures, on-screen and in the real world

Molly will tie each example to contemporary, pressing considerations for designers with increasingly complex problems to solve in data and visualization, information architecture, the IoT, and beyond.

Photo of Molly Steenson

Molly Steenson

Carnegie Mellon University

Molly Wright Steenson is an associate professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. She researches the history of architecture, design, and computing from the 1950s to the present and is writing a book titled Architecting Interactivity. Molly was previously an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an associate professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Ivrea, Italy, where she led the Connected Communities research group, and an adjunct at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Prior to her academic career, Molly cut her teeth on the Web in 1994, working at companies like Netscape, Scient, and Reuters. She holds a PhD in architecture from Princeton University and a master of environmental design from the Yale School of Architecture.