“Anatomy of an AI System” – a project that explores the social and environmental impact of Amazon’s Echo devices running the Alexa voice assistant – has won the 2019 Beazley Design of the Year.
The award and accompanying exhibition is held each year at London’s Design Museum to showcase original and innovative new designs in various fields.
The all-digital winning investigation, created by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, looks at the amount of human labor, data and resources required to support the lifespan of a single Echo product, visually illustrating the real-world impact of voice assistants.
“It shows how many people and how much energy goes into producing artificial intelligence,” said curator Beatrice Galilee in a phone interview. “These things that simplify our lives and require less effort on our part, take up a spectacular amount of effort to generate, involving multiple continents, mining of various minerals, all of the labor, all of the tech, all of the updates – this project is showing the rest of the iceberg on that.”
The project, whose findings include the disparity in wages between an industry CEO and a child miner, asks a difficult question: is the convenience offered by these devices worth their human and environmental cost?
“AI is such a prevailing feature of the future of technology it seemed the perfect moment to analyze its impact, which this project does,” Paul Thompson, Chairman of the 2019 judges, said in a statement.
“In the future, when you purchase a piece of digital hardware it could have the ingredients listed. This project shows how this might look and makes everyone who sees it think about all the unseen impact of tech hardware. You will never look at your smart home hub the same way again.”
More winners were picked from six award categories: products, transport, graphics, fashion, digital and architecture. Anatomy of an AI System also won the category award for Digital, as well as the top title.
The Maya Somaiya school library in Kopargaon, India, took home the architecture award. A complex series of arches and double curvatures take their cue from Catalan vaulting techniques, while the brick rooms and walls transform the roof into a usable landscape, allowing children to walk and play on top of the library itself.
The fashion award went to a capsule collection of Adidas Originals by Ji Won Choi, which draws inspiration from the designer’s Korean roots and, in particular, traditional Korean dress.
The graphic category went to the architectural branding, environmental graphics and signage for the new Seoul headquarters of beauty and cosmetics company Amorepacific, designed by Sascha Lobe at Pentagram with L2M3.
Best product was awarded to the Catch HIV detector. It is a low-cost and user-friendly self-test device by British product designer Hans Ramzan, targeted at emerging countries where easy access to healthcare isn’t always available.
Designs of the year shortlist revealed
The transport winner was Gacha, a self-driving shuttle bus concept co-designed by Japanese retail giant MUJI and Sensible 4, a Finnish autonomous driving company.
Last year, “Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture,” an exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts took home the main prize. In 2017, architect David Adjaye emerged as the winner for his National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, out of a politically charged shortlist. In 2016, the award went to an emergency refugee shelter designed by Ikea.