The Startup
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The Startup

The Orb: How Design Breathes Life Into AI

Even from outside of the Tom Rossau flagship store, one is mesmerized by the warm light emanating from numerous circular shapes. Clusters of sculptural lamps populate walls and ceilings like flotillas of gently glowing jellyfish, conveying a singular sense of design drawing equally on geometry, woodcarving, and origami.

This luminous allure was exactly what attracted Corti’s CPO, Yuan Nielsen, to explore the unique space that Tom has created for himself on the beautifully sloping boulevard, Frederiksberg Allé, since humble beginnings on Istedgade, a raw and bohemian street in the neighboring Vesterbro.

Tom Rossau and his apprentice Henrik Martinsen speak of their work like monks waxing lyrical about the ageless art of refinement. Asked if he draws his inspiration from specific forms in nature, Tom responds that he actually attunes to the material itself.

“I rather consider myself a midwife, whose finest job is to deliver these materials into the world with their best foot forward”, Tom says with a smile.

Like an Olympic gymnast painting elusive airborne forms by twirling a ribbon, he grabs an elongated piece of thin birch, bending it attentively in order to explain its natural propensities.

“Certainly not”, is the prompt answer when Tom is asked if he ever imagined one day designing the exterior for a life-saving AI. “But that’s exactly why this project is so fascinating: Seemingly contrasting worlds come together to create a thing of beauty from the inside out.”

In its bare form, an AI-carrying supercomputer does not have the most endearing appearance. Typically, it is a cold and alienating circuit board stuffed with chips and connectors in complex arrangements. Add to that the bad reputation that AIs have gotten from appearing in the treacherous form of red robot eyes in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator saga, and you wouldn’t necessarily consider them very appealing.

Back in the real world, Corti’s cardiac arrest detecting AI has solely benevolent capabilities. And it should look the part. So Yuan Nielsen and Tom Rossau got to work on a simple, intelligent design solution. Enthused with the strangeness of their mission, they first spent 48 hours raving about purpose and grace before coming up with a concept.

Previous attempts had included a 3D-printed black bowl, reminiscent of a Darth Vader helmet, with holes poked out for ventilation, so when the Nielsen/Rossau Orb eventually came into being, the contrast was formidable. The Orb securely encased all the technical components, while acing criteria such as ventilation, solidity, and a modestly enchanting presence.

Rossau’s trademark lamella resulted in an outer shell, mimicking membranes in the human ear. But functionality is still at the heart of the design, as the gill-shaped layers allow air to enter and cool the processor. When sampling materials, aluminum, and steel were chosen to provide strength and authority — yet were softened with a special white powder-coated finish to give the Orb a gentle and discreet nature.

While Yuan found a way to rearrange components into a space-optimizing new piece of edge computing, Tom and Henrik built each casing by hand, applying meticulous care from years of experience. Their insistence on personal hands-on production spurred some interesting meditations:

“It is fascinating to think that even AIs are handcrafted in so far as they are made from typed code. Human enterprise has undoubtedly come a long way since blacksmiths forged the first ploughs and axes, but ultimately we’re still building instruments for the advancement of our culture,“ says Yuan Nielsen.

If the Digital Revolution seems different from former industrial revolutions, it might be due to its convoluted technologies, whose workings only programmers tend to understand. Its disruptive effects, however, are not that different from those of the late 1700s. Novelty brings about uncertainty and even fear, along with vast new possibilities.

“We recognize that some remain skeptical as to the present and future role of AIs in society, but we find that many of these reservations are tied to the intangible form of digital technologies,” Yuan continues. “By endowing our AI with an appealing sculptural form, enhanced with a pleasant radiance, we seek to negotiate these reservations. Objects can moreover be taken at face value. If you no longer wish to have the Orb’s assistance, simply unplug it.”

In a time dominated by cloud computing, one is curious to know why Corti started producing hardware in the first place? “We are building AI for an environment that cannot yet facilitate the vast computational models. So instead of asking customers to beef up their server rooms, the Orb is an extremely user-friendly, plug-and-play solution. It takes just minutes to set up and allows our AI to run real-time emergency support, directly connected to nothing but the call taker’s telephone,” she concludes.

Back in the workshop, Tom Rossau does the final testing of yet another Orb. When turning on the finished device, an artificial intelligence is activated and ready to empower call takers in their most critical moments. The future looks bright for AI and healthcare, not least because Corti’s Orbs will populate emergency medical services around the world.

-Interview by Daniel Flendt.

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