Expert Interview

Telescope Magazine: Unlike your previous activities that were focused on visualizing technologies, you went for observation and scrutiny in your biome project. Why the change of heart?

Kevin Slavin: I think the change from technological systems to natural systems is partly just an elevation of the same question. Maybe it is easier to interrogate technological systems than natural systems.

It may also be because biological systems are becoming technological systems; they're becoming accessible through technological means. So much so that today, pushing technology means pushing into life itself.

I'm not talking about the technological singularity and cyborg nonsense; I'm talking about technology allowing us to understand life in ways that we never imagined. When we first cracked the genome, everybody thought "Oh, this is great, because now I can send my spit and I can learn everything about me." But that's actually the least interesting thing that we can possibly do with that technology.

What we can learn about is everything in the world. Half of all the species that we detect with our technique don't have names yet. Think about that. We want to send people to Mars and start a new planet and we don't even have names for half of the life on earth! It's kind of crazy. We've only started to learn more about the world thanks to the massive scale computation that allows us to interrogate DNA. I don't know what the next system is but there's always another.

Telescope Magazine: In telecommunications, 5G deployment will no longer be a pipe dream. In your view, what are the things that 5G would enable?

Kevin Slavin: In the telecom area, the U.S. is far behind Japan and Europe. I think Americans aren't used to the idea of really massive bandwidth in the air except Wi-Fi, so you build broadband and nobody really knows what it's for. It turns out it changes games in a powerful way, and it leads to YouTube and everything that YouTube leads to, which actually can be quite powerful.

What 5G leads to is impossible to say with clarity, but what's interesting to me is not the ability to have access to video and high bandwidth things wherever you go. It's actually the ability to process, to actually upload huge amounts of bandwidth.

We should think about the phones less as output devices and more as sensors. How does 5G affect their capabilities as sensors? I think smartphones will soon be able to understand where they are by what they see. It's called SLAM, simultaneous localization and mapping.*3

Once you have millions of people activating their phones' SLAM in various places, you're basically building up databases for indoor mapping. About ten years ago, Blaise Aguera y Arcas built an engine that takes up numerous tourist photos and assembles a three-dimensional image of Notre Dame and other famous locations.

Around that time, Flickr*4 had emerged as the place where everybody put their photos, so he developed an engine that integrates these photos into 3D images. Today, everybody is essentially recording video all the time or processing video all the time, so there's room for somebody to make use of those outputs to create something unimaginably innovative.

Telescope Magazine: And the data gathering would happen automatically, without any conscious efforts by the users.

Kevin Slavin: Yeah, without anyone having to orchestrate it. One of the reasons that our maps have gotten so good is because all of our phones know where they are, so the maps are always adjusting to what the phones say they should be. Our images of three-dimensional space may have the same outcome once we have 5G clouds that constantly ingest video signals.

Telescope Magazine: You have come up with a lot of enjoyable concepts, such as games that make use of invisible technologies. If the real world becomes more and more like games, wouldn't you say it could generate technologies that are even more interesting?

Kevin Slavin: Back when we had a game company that dealt with this aspect, everybody asked us, "Can't you just make all of life like a game?" and we said no. Because what actually makes a game enjoyable is that it's not real life.

There's a philosopher, Johan Huizinga, who talked about a thing called the magic circle. The magic circle is this thing that happens when you and I play a game. Say we are playing Monopoly; I'm going to try to bankrupt you and you're going to try to bankrupt me. We start with the same amount of money, and everything that separates us in everyday life is totally left behind, and then we prey on one another. But the consequences of that don't change anything that happen when we walk away. We're still friends. That's actually what makes it fun. You can freely pull things in and out of life when you are in that magical space. We did try to make this game space more like real life, but never attempted to make real life into a game.

Telescope Magazine: As technologies relentlessly evolve, where do you think the human mind will go?

Kevin Slavin: That's a big question. I think that the early phases of technological evolution have been based on a false premise, that what computers are doing is basically the same as what the brain and the mind is doing. But it's not like that at all, in the same way that a submarine is not a fish even though they both swim. AI does something that looks like thinking, but that's different from thinking, and we're becoming increasingly clear that it is distinct and different.

I think maybe there's a value in this difference, because it makes us realize what actually makes humans human. Perhaps the true value of AI is not in making machines more human, but in making humans more human.


SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping): A computational technology for estimating an agent's location and constructing a map at the same time. Its applications include autonomous cars and robots.
Flickr: An online image-sharing community site.
Kevin Slavin


Kevin Slavin

Kevin Slavin is Chief Science and Technology Officer for the Shed, an integrated art center scheduled to open in 2019. Prior to that, he started up Playful Systems group at MIT's Media Lab in 2013 and joined its faculty as assistant professor and founder.
Slavin co-founded Area/Code in 2005 to pursue many innovative projects, including the development of a precursor of location-based games that used actual cities as game boards. The company was acquired by Zynga in 2011.
Earlier, he worked in publishing and advertising, engaging in the development of various technology-based games and artistic works.
Slavin is a graduate of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.


Noriko Takiguchi

Noriko Takiguchi is a freelance editor/journalist. She graduated from Sophia University's Department of German Studies, Faculty of Foreign Studies, and after a stint at a magazine publisher as an editor, she went freelance. From 1996 to 1998, Takiguchi was a visiting researcher at Stanford University's Computer Science Department at the School of Engineering as a Fulbright Scholar in journalism. Takiguchi currently resides in Silicon Valley and frequently contributes newspaper and magazine articles on technology, business, and cultural topics in general. The books she authored in Japanese include Actionism: Rem Koolhaas Dossier (TOTO Publishing) and Field Notes on Japanese Architect: Toyo Ito (TOTO Publishing). Among the books she translated into Japanese are Bringing Design to Software by Terry Winograd, An Engineer Imagines (an autobiography) by Peter Rice [with co-translators], and Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots by John Markoff.