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Speech: Beyond ambient intelligence, on towards ambient culture | 2001

Stefano Marzano

CEO, Philips Design

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me first say… how pleased and honoured I am to be able to welcome you here to Eindhoven today, and to Philips Design in particular. I don’t think we’ve had so many professors here together all at one time before! I hope some of your learning rubs off on us before you go!

As you know, the Technical University of Eindhoven, with the support of Philips Design, is opening a new faculty focusing on the Design of Interactive Systems. At Philips Design, we are obviously very much at the forefront of the latest developments in interactive electronic systems. We can’t afford not to be, because our commercial survival depends on it. So we need to be able to call upon talented young people who’ve been trained in the latest technologies and ideas, and who are ready to take them further with us. Only in that way can we stay fresh and exciting.

That’s why we’re supporting the university in this new venture. And I believe it’s going to be more of a challenge than many people think. It’s going to reveal a lot of new territory to be explored. It’s going to call for new paradigms, new mindsets and even a new ethics. I’d like to talk to you about this for a few minutes, if I may.

High Design

At Philips Design, we already take a very broad, multi-skilled view of design, integrating traditional design skills with human sciences, like anthropology, sociology, psychology and trends research. The result is an approach we call “high design”. It has served us very well in tackling many of the complex issues involved in designing high-tech consumer electronics goods for the global market.

But as interaction between human beings and intelligent artefacts comes to play an increasingly important part in people’s lives, we are going to have to deal with more complex situations than ever before. That means we’re going to have to change – and it means design education is going to have to change.

I say design education, but in fact, I mean art education as well, because, as I’ll argue in a moment, both callings have a vital role to play in the coming development of interactive, ambient intelligence. The issues involved will be so far-reaching that artists will inevitably play a leading part. We shall need them to foresee, as James Joyce put it, the “uncreated conscience” of the human race.

Perhaps that sounds dramatic. But I believe it is dramatic.

We are currently entering a period in which many of our traditional certainties will be challenged. For example: What does it mean to be human? What makes an experience real? What is ethical behaviour? Where is the borderline between the natural and the artificial?

In a very real sense, this is a new Renaissance. In the previous Renaissance, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people were exploring the boundaries of the world as they had known it up till then. And their discoveries turned many traditional assumptions upside down.

The fact that Columbus did not sail off the edge of the earth, for instance, was a great shock to most people. But at the same time, the fact that there was a whole New World out there created great excitement and inspired many adventurers to follow him.

What had an even more radical effect, perhaps, was Galileo’s discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe. That shook the very foundations of the established world view, as embodied in the teachings of the Church and the associated feudal system of government. The effects of this discovery were far-reaching, and can be seen in many of the social and political upheavals of the following centuries.

The world took a new path, a new direction at that point. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think that the development of ambient intelligence may not only change the course of human history in the same way, but even, ultimately, lead us along a new evolutionary path.

Let’s have a look at some of the parallels between the Renaissance and now. Certainly, we are seeing that today – just like then – the boundaries between various types of existence are not as clear-cut as we thought. They are actually turning out to be blurred.


Take the distinction between the material and the immaterial world, for instance. Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to see them as quite separate. Now they are about to merge again.

Objects become subjects

The material technology that we use to help us live richer lives – television, computers, appliances – is still physically very present in our houses and offices, in the shape of grey and black boxes. But soon these boxes will disappear, as the technology becomes incorporated into our material environment, the traditional objects that we have surrounded ourselves with for millennia – such as tables, chairs, floors, walls and ceilings. At the moment these objects are static and unintelligent. But as technology becomes hidden within them, they will become ‘subjects’ – active and intelligent actors in our environment. At the same time, the immaterial world of screen-based interactions, such as services, games, entertainment and information provision, will become more prominent and visible in our lives. So as material technology becomes invisible, immaterial technology becomes visible. Unintelligent objects become intelligent subjects. The boundary becomes blurred.


As unintelligent objects become intelligent, they begin to resemble beings like ourselves, and the distinction between organic and inorganic therefore also becomes blurred.

We are used to thinking of the organic or living world having a monopoly on real intelligence. But machines are beginning to exhibit types of intelligence that can, at least in part, mimic human intelligence. So just as technology is disappearing into traditional objects, such as chairs and tables, it’s now also entering into other shapes that have always formed part of the human environment – namely, other human beings and animals. This may be in the form of chips implanted into our own bodies or the bodies of pets, or domestic and wild animals; or it may be in the form of humanoid or ‘animaloid’ robots. One familiar example is Aiba, the pet robot dog developed by Sony. We also foresaw such little pets in our futuristic Vision of the Future exhibition, which you may have heard of. We called these playmates Ludic Robots.

But robotic pets are only the beginning. Many people around the world are working on the technologies required to replicate all the senses and the actions of living beings. As a result, during the next few decades, we shall see the boundary between the organic and the inorganic world become increasingly blurred.


The boundary between the organic and the inorganic overlaps with, but is not identical with, the boundary between the real and the artificial. Is the cloning of human beings an artificial or natural process? If artificial, does that mean that the clone itself is artificial or unnatural? And what about experience? Many of our sensory and intellectual experiences do not reach us directly, but through the mediation of technology – in the form of television, telecommunications, internet and so on. Does this mediation – which started with storytelling and reporting, and continued with the invention of painting and writing – mean that indirect experiences are less valid, less real to the individual receiving them? Is virtual reality as valid as physical reality? And what do we mean by valid here anyway? Where is the boundary today between reality and imagination? Where is the Self? What is the Self in an unreal world?

Early Warning System

These and similar issues will become fundamentally important in society in the coming years. And that makes them areas that designers and artists therefore need to explore.

Marshal McLuhan once remarked that “art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” Art is a sort of space probe that is sent into the future.

I mentioned the Philips Vision of the Future Exhibition. We have also mounted a number of similar future-oriented projects since then. They are an indication of how seriously we believe designers share with artists this role of ‘space probe’. Both designers and artists have a duty to explore the future. Designers do so with a view to producing something that can be useful to society on a mass scale. They bring together developments in technology and developments within society and find a way to communicate the resulting ideas to a large audience of consumers. Artists, on the other hand, are not restricted by that practical goal, but can focus on generating individual experiences, perhaps even experiences private to themselves, that may – or may not – be widely shared. The artist has a greater freedom to experiment; the designer has the satisfaction of seeing his work achieving its purpose on a wide scale. Each has its own attraction; each has its own value.


Perhaps the most important implication of the developments I have sketched is that relationships, behaviour and interactivity will be where the most exciting work takes place. Physical appearance and aesthetics in the traditional sense will be less central.

When the objects in our environment become capable of probing physical and symbolic space, when technology wakes up, the world will be transformed in almost unimaginable ways. We will need to develop codes of acceptable and ethical behaviour that will govern our interactions with them. They need to be initiated into our ways of doing things, to be educated in the ways of civilisation – the common code of behaviour that humans have developed over millennia of living together. They need to be able to recognise and interpret our expressions and emotions. And it’s important that we do this work sooner rather than later. As the ozone layer tells us, it’s often more difficult to put a problem right after it’s occurred than it is to prevent it in the first place. In implementing new technologies we need to look ahead more carefully than ever. Which is why the role of the artist and exploratory designer is so important.

Art and Robotics

A number of artists have already done interesting work in exploring the relation between people and robots.

On the technical side, MIT Media Lab, for instance, has developed interactive shoes that allow a dancer or gymnast to create interactions with music and sound as they perform, so that, instead of the performer performing to music fully prescribed by the composer, the performer can create his or her own music as an integral part of the dance movements. The same group have also developed a number of interactive musical experiences, such as a Harmonic Driving experience, in which you ‘drive’ through a musical landscape, personalising it as you go; and A Gesture Wall that converts the intensity of physical gestures into visual form.

From the artistic side, the American artist Kenneth Rinaldo, for instance, has developed a number of installations featuring robotic sculptures that interact with the public and each other, changing their behaviour and evolving as a system, based on the input they receive from each source. And then there’s the Amorphic Robot Works group from San Francisco, who have developed a kinetic sculpture resembling a human skeleton and capable of a wide range of human expressions. This humanoid machine, called “Skeletal Reflection”, was on show at Expo2000 in Hanover last year. Wearing a special telemetric suit, people were able to teach the machine new behaviour. In that way they got an impression of what it was like to interact with a humanoid-type machine.

New challenge for art and design education

All this suggests a new challenge for institutions involved in training artists and designers.

To fulfil their role as the Early Warning System or the space probe, artists will need to be able to understand the technologies that will soon be an important part of our environment. They will be in a sense the new materials with which artists will create their works of art. They will need to know them well enough to play and experiment with them. Interaction, behaviour and evolution will be the key words, rather than the traditional old mono-directional, passive, one-time approach. The fine arts will develop into a new kind of performing art, as static works come alive and dance or play with their audience.

Designers, too, will not only need to concern themselves with ‘products’ as such, but more and more with the ways they interact with people in a life that is continually evolving, as both product and user get to learn more about each other over time.

Certainly, then, both designers and artists will have a lot to teach each other.

New Renaissance

As I said at the beginning, we are entering a new Renaissance.

Education underwent a radical change during the previous Renaissance, as old sources of knowledge were rediscovered and new sources eagerly searched for. Today, no doubt the same thing will happen. We need not only to understand the new technologies and all their implications, we also need to go back to basics to understand more about ourselves, to look again at things we have taken for granted – how we walk, how we look, how we express ourselves at the most simple and everyday levels.

Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo were engaged in a great enterprise to find out more about the human body, the human spirit and its environment, initiating, perhaps, a new evolutionary path for the mind. Today, we are about to embark on a project to extend at least some human qualities to machines. In doing so, we will not only be holding up a mirror to ourselves, but we shall also have to live with the results of our creative efforts. And our descendants may have to live with more far-reaching effects than we can imagine. All this makes it vital that we get it right today – a challenge that will demand the very best from tomorrow’s artists, designers and their teachers.

Thank you very much.


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