episode 1 – humanizing tech: experiments in art and technology | Domhnaill Hernon
In this episode, Domhnaill Hernon, the Head of Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.) at Nokia Bell Labs speaks with us about innovation as a cultural change, bringing humans back to the center of the design, and the history of creativity at Bell Labs. Domhnaill is passionate about turning research/ideas into reality and exploring the bounds of creativity to push the limits of technology. He currently collaborates with the artistic and creative community to push the limits of technology to solve the greatest human need challenges at Bell Labs.
[00:00:00] Nir Hindi: Hey, Domhnaill Welcome to the Artian podcast.
Domhnaill Hernon: Hey, Nir how are you?
Nir Hindi: I am great. First, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. And we have going to have amazing conversation about art and technology, and maybe you can start and introducing yourself to our listeners.
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah, I am uh, an Irish person who lives in the U S and I currently head up an art and technology initiative at Nokia bell labs.
So, my current title is head of experiments in art and technology.
Nir Hindi: I am uh, I would only already envy you because it comes with a lot of history and I think it maybe, it is a great opportunity to ask you. Maybe you can tell us briefly what bell labs is and then what is the history that bell labs have with art.
Domhnaill Hernon: Sure.
Bell labs is the research arm or the research division. Well, the parent company. So, our current [00:01:00] parent company is Nokia. You might know very well from the famous days of prior to smartphones with Nokia now is a global leader in telecommunications equipment, our parent company, before that was Alcatel-Lucent and then Lucent and then AT&T so a long history of bell labs being the research division for these large corporate entities in telecommunications.
And you should think of bell labs is people talk about R and D. Well, bell labs are largely just, R where we are focused on fundamental research, big or big research. And we look to solve problems that are five, 10, 15, 20 years out. That is our mandating by labs. So, bell labs are very famous for major scientific contributions to the world, such as the transistor, which is, you know, the forbearer of all modern electronics.
Uh, you know, things like the laser Unix, C language C computer language I could go on and on and on lots of world changing [00:02:00] inventions at bell labs and bell labs today have nine Nobel prizes in physics for their contributions to the scientific community. So, a rich history and deep, deep, scientific, fundamental research.
And then translating that research into market impact are changing the world. Now that’s bell labs generally. So, we do a lot of research on material science, on an electronics and communication protocols, and we have the word records and how much information you can send over fiber optic cables and true the air to wireless technology and so on.
So forth. I will not go into that too much more. So very broad research. Now within bell labs, since the very start of bell labs, bell labs was created in 1925. Within a few years, bell labs already started. Pioneering collaborations with artists and musicians.
Nir Hindi: Amazing.
Domhnaill Hernon: And they, and we used not used, but we collaborated with artists and musicians to push our technology way beyond [00:03:00] where we thought we could.
So, for example, I will not go into it all, but some of the earliest examples, the first stereo transmission of sound was developed by bell labs in collaboration with a very famous conductor of the time Leopold Stokowski and the first, uh, notions of spatial audio. So how you move. Audio around and multiple channels were done back in the day, the first computer animation, computer graphics, uh, it was developed at bell labs with artistic collaborators,
Nir Hindi: When was this?
Domhnaill Hernon: The forties, fifties for the first computer animation sixties.
All that work was pioneering. So yeah. Bell labs had this strong history all the way from day. One of working very closely with artists. And I mean, closely as an artist, we are embedded in bell labs as collaborators for many years at a time and pioneered all these creative ways to use technology that were the forbearers again of our digital existence today.
So that’s very exciting parts of the history. [00:04:00] And then what happened was that led up to a moment in the mid-sixties. Where a very well-known bell labs engineer called Billy Kluver and another engineer called Fred Waldhower, they, in their personal time became very interested in the artistic scene in New York.
And they ended up bringing their skills as engineers and scientists to help some of those famous artists of the time enable their work on creation by using technology and what ended up hopping the most. It was so powerful, and they sold so much good in this that they created this. Seminal bringing together of engineers and scientists.
It was called the 9 Evenings of Theatre and Engineering. It was in 1966 and it was the artistic and creative practice of artists like Cage, Whitman, Rainer, or you name it like the biggest names of that time. Or maybe even almost any time in art and their creative ideas were brought to life by the technological solutions of [00:05:00] the bell labs engineers.
And I had these nine evenings of performance that were kind of groundbreaking at the time. And that then led to the creation of a, not for profit organization called experiments in art and technology. Not well to think of that. That was a matchmaking organization across the world to bring engineers together with scientists or with artists, I should say.
So, engineers and scientists matching them with arches, and they created several works around the world that was around 1967. Up again on a kind of. Had a very, a lot of momentum up until the early seventies, mid-seventies, and then kind of fizzled out for natural reasons. And at the same time, our collaborations in bell labs with the artistic community kind of fizzled out in the late seventies for very many reasons.
And it was not until four years ago in 2016 that we rekindled this initiative.
Nir Hindi: Amazing. I mean, um, I always use it. Yeah. I think the, the best example from this beside the 9 evenings, which became legendary, I think in the [00:06:00] intersection of other technology, I often use the project that they also did in a 90, 70 in the expo, in the example of a that invented the first in the world, artificial folk made by water and electricity.
So, it is, it is kind of. I think that sometimes people do not understand how advance the collaboration between art and technology was back in the days. We think that it is happening today, which again, kind of invites the question. What makes you bring back this program in 2016, if I am correct?
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah. So, it was kind of a convergence of a few things.
Um, prior to that, At the leadership level in bell labs, we were having conversations about what were we missing in our approach to our research and our technology development. Were we missing [00:07:00] something in terms of creativity? Where are we missing something in terms of a human connection? And where were you?
Were there dimensions of how we would think about the intersection of humanity and technology that we were completely blind to. So, we are just having questions, you know, are we missing something in how we are hiring people? Are we missing something in the experience and skills of the people that we are hiring?
Are we missing something and how we are bringing those people together or not bringing them together? So, lots of kinds of strategic conversations around collaboration and knowledge sharing and skill sets and experience and lack of diversity and those critically important topics. And then we would get into 2016.
And it was the 50th anniversary of the nine evenings that we just referenced and a lot of people around the world, but in New York, because that is where the nine evenings took place. A lot of people approached us. If we could attend events to celebrate if we could partner with them for events.
And honestly, when we got these requests, [00:08:00] we had no idea what the nine evenings was. We barely knew about eat. We had institutionally forgot about it, largely. I mean, this was something that happened in the sixties and seventies.
Nir Hindi: Wow.
Domhnaill Hernon: Bell labs moved on continuing our deeply texts. But as I said, we kind of, we lost our connection with the artistic community, largely in an institution.
And we just forgot about this. Part of the role of the bell labs has played in bringing these two worlds together. Excuse me. So. We, we investigated this, we researched this. We started realizing, Oh, this is extremely interesting. Okay. Let us learn more. And then we went to several meetups in New York. One of them, the one I remember the most was run by the red bull music Academy in New York city.
And they invited like 60, 80 artists. And I think there was maybe 10 of us from bell labs.
Nir Hindi: Wow.
Domhnaill Hernon: We just had conversations in the bar upstairs and uh, every one of those conversations blew my mind. Every one of them. And I realized that with all my degrees and all my education and all [00:09:00] my work experience, that there was a whole, there were whole dimensions to the world that I was completely blind to.
So, I became super intrigued by the way, these people talk the way they spoke, the way they thought about technology and their kind of philosophical perspective. And they are much more human centric perspective than I had encountered. True. The engineering and scientific disciplines. So that was a very good opening, uh, introduction to the artistic world.
I was fascinated by it and we decided then to, to kind of move that forward a bit and have some more conversations. And there was one organization that every person we met with them that night just resonated with us. And that was the new museum. We were a contemporary museum in New York.
So, we decided to have a couple of follow-up sessions with them. Anyway, it is a long story. I mean, we did lots of things with. We realized that this was the dimension we were missing. We realized that we should really kickstart and your initiative to [00:10:00] dip our toes back into the arts and tech water And we decided to name us about a lot.
Nokia bell labs eat experiments in arts and technology. In honor of the activities that took place in the sixties and seventies, the bell labs were a critical part of.
Nir Hindi: Amazing.
I did not know this part of the story and I am very happy are sharing it with us. Um, I. Kind of no way, Julia, that led the new Inc eh, well.
And I always recommend people to check new Inc, which is a startup incubator owned by museum. Uh, often it seems a crazy idea that the museum has a startup incubator, but the moment you get to know how artists work with technology. For me, it is just natural that museums would have their own. They start up an incubator, um, you know, a.
You started to speak about this connection with the artists and you coming from a pure engineering background. [00:11:00] And I am interested to hear from you, what is the difference between artists and engineers when it comes to think about technology?
Domhnaill Hernon: Oh, well there is so many, I mean, there is so many in general. I, I never mind focusing on technology, but the biggest one probably is artists for me.
Think about technology through the lens of humanity, engineers, and scientists for the vast majority. And I will speak for my experience. Having worked with all disciplines, having managed teams across all disciplines, having worked with many, many universities across the world. Knowing what worked with lots of startups worked with other big corporations, right?
So, when I, when I say this from my experience, I mean, it is quite a broad experience, the vast, vast majority, and I would categorize it 99.9% of the engineering and scientific community in, in the hard [00:12:00] sciences, right. Would say, of course not the social science, but the hard sciences. They do not even contemplate the effect their technology might have on humanity.
So, they think about algorithms and they think about equations and they think about product design and they think about revenue and to think about solving a technical problem, a technological problem, or a challenge, but they never ever sit back and say, Oh, wait a minute. In five years’, time, how might this algorithm affect humanity or our humanity?
How might this equation that might lead to a product that goes to markers and like that harm humanity. How might it harm humanity in the near term, in the long-term. I might this be used in different ways to do harm, to do batch, to do damage. They are just so obsessed with solving the technical problem.
And by the way, I am not attributing personal blame to an individual. This is how we are trained as engineers and scientists. This is how companies employ us and pay us our salaries to solve technical problems so that they can [00:13:00] generate revenue from that. So, this is, um, This is pervasive across the engineering and scientific subjects.
The harder sciences I should say quite largely. And that there is a big difference by their very nature is to tend to think about everything through the lens of humanity I find, or I would put it this way. Most artists naturally are inclined to think about everything through the lens of humanity.
So, it can be philosophy. It can be art itself. It could be technology. It can be relationships. It could be anything, but they are very human centric in their approach and engineers and scientists just are no.
Nir Hindi: And what are other differences that you see?
Domhnaill Hernon: You know, I am sure at some stage you people often ask me about, they often say, I often say, I do not believe engineers and scientists are creative or as creative as artists.
Now let me clarify that. I think there is a different type of creativity. Now. I come [00:14:00] from the world of. Engineering and scientific creativity. So, I am when I say that I do not think engineers or scientists are as creative as art it just is because I am inspired by the different way that art just create, because it is something that I did not know, I have become to know a little bit better.
And I knew the way that engineers and scientists create. Right. So that is why I kind of exaggerate the difference. But what I would say is engineers and scientists. Have a banded or a constraint creativity. So, there is a problem set before us, either by ourselves or someone else. And then we try and find the easiest quickest way.
And as, as I talk about sometimes picking the smallest solvable chunk of that problem, and we become super focused on that and we solve that problem using known equations, no one frameworks, no one theoretical concepts, right. And then we try and solve the unknown problem often. through these know these known techniques.
So [00:15:00] it is a, it is a very bounded, very constrained type of creativity, or honestly what I would say. And it gets me in trouble. Sometimes I do not, I do not view that as creativity really in the same sense as when I look at an artist, an artist in comparison is completely unbounded, completely unconstrained.
They are not using algorithms and equations. That is completely 100% dictate how you go about solving a problem. They can use anything before them. They can create new things. They do not just focus on a certain paradigm or framework or algorithm, and that they think about the world in a totally different way.
It is extremely divergent and expansionist in their approach. And they just absorb ideas from everywhere that possibly can. And then they connect those ideas in super interesting ways. So, it is the most unbounded. Most unconstrained form of creativity in comparison to the sciences. And that is a really big difference that I’ve [00:16:00] found, you know, what happens is some, some engineers and scientists that are naturally creative really get upset with me.
And I say that, and it is true that there are a small number of individuals that think more like. an artist, but when I described this, I am describing most of the population, 99.9%.
Nir Hindi: And I have a, another interesting question. So where do you think they are similar? Are these 10 engineers?
Domhnaill Hernon: Well, they are all human beings. Um, I, I do not know. I, I mean, the similarities are kind of. Ones that do not particularly interest me. I will put it that way. And it is something that it is something that I do not focus on too much. I am far more interested in how they are dissimilar, but how I might bring them together to work in meaningful ways because the dissimilarity is so extreme.
It causes a lot of natural tension and barriers and communication and collaboration and everything. Right. So, I am [00:17:00] super interested in how they are dissimilar but how they are similar is are, and how we select our artists is that. They both sides, engineers, scientists, and artists want to do something new.
They want to be impactful. They want to put their own personal, positive dent in the world typically. Um, and they want to be the best of what they do. So, when I talk about how I bring the, how I bridge the gap between these two sites and how I make the dissimilarities, the similarities become something positive.
I bring in artists and I bring in engineers that have that commonality, that they are very good at what they do, and they can see how the other side is very good at what they do. So naturally now they have a, they have an affinity towards the shoulder because there’s clarity, world-leading competency. And then we bring them together such that both want to have impact.
And they understand that if they do things a different way, that is, what is going to give them impact. So now they are open to embracing something different, even though they might not [00:18:00] understand that or understand how to. Work within that difference, but they are at least open to it because they can see, ah, I need to do things different.
Do I need to think differently? That is how I will differentiate myself as an engineer or scientist. So, I, I, I speak to the commonality when I bring them together, but I am far more interested in how they are dissimilar than how I bridge that gap.
Nir Hindi: Yeah. Very interesting. You know, so it is kind of a, bring another question you just spoke about these similarities.
And one of the things I always claim is that innovation happens at data’s intersection of disciplines and as a VP of research and innovation in bell labs. Um, you need to create this environment. Um, and, and I wonder, besides kind of. Creating or bringing together people that, uh, not similar, but have something in common.
What are the other things you think companies or managers should they [00:19:00] do when they think about developing a culture of innovation or at least the environment that is supported?
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah. So, this is a very loaded question. So, I have a couple of kinds of taglines that I use when I talk about innovation or innovation strategy.
So, the first thing is, if everything is innovative, then surely nothing is. So, you first must understand what innovation is. Innovation is not business as usual. Innovation is not just R and D. Innovation is not just having a corporate venture capital arm to your business. Innovation is all those things and more, right.
So, you must first really understand what innovation is. The second kind of high-level concept I talk about is how I truly believe innovation or to create an innovative culture is a culture change initiative. If you are if you are in an organization that is not inherently innovative. [00:20:00] Um, and know you want to instill a culture of innovation and creativity in that organization, whether it is academia, startup, the big business, it does not matter a museum.
You need to understand culture change. You need to understand culture, design, culture, change, implementation, and execution. If you do not treat this as a culture change initiative, you are going to fail. And by the way, 80% of culture change initiatives fail because they are very difficult. Guess what the.
Um, percentage of innovation initiatives fail 80%. Yeah. It is not a coincidence that bolt is the same failure rate. So, first, you would have to at a, at a high level, I could talk about this for hours. You need to understand what innovation is. It is not a buzzword. You do not create an innovative culture without investment, and without time it takes a long time, a lot of investment in your people and your processes.
Everything to get to an innovation culture. So, you need to understand what it is, what it is. Not very importantly, you need to treat it as culture change. [00:21:00] Otherwise it is going to fail. And even then, unless you do it well, still likely to fail. So, you need to understand that if you are, if you are, uh, an executive in an organization and you want to create this innovation initiative, and I just did air quotes there for anyone, um, You, you need to understand that.
And then, um, the final thing is you, you really, and this is part of the culture change. What I would call this out explicitly. You really need to understand your current culture. You must understand the culture that you want to create in a certain amount of time, X number of years from now, you need to understand that gap or that Delta, and you need to put a plan very smartly, very strategically in place that in a phased way and a gradual way.
Fills that gap and, um, converts your culture from where it is today, to where it needs to be. It cannot happen overnight. It cannot happen with a click of a finger. It cannot happen just because some super powerful executive says, right, the chief [00:22:00] innovation officer or the SVP of something comes in and says, clicks their fingers and says, Let this be.
And I want to see change in six months that is complete nonsense on anyone that does that. That is a clear indicator that they do not actually understand what innovation is. They do not actually understand the principles of culture change, and they do not really understand where it is that their culture is and where they want it to be.
And they are just doing a check, the box exercise to make themselves look cool. So,
Nir Hindi: you know, it is again, as you said, it is okay. We can dive deep to this topic. Um, so, so, so interesting. So, um, I am interested, let us assume we have someone that understand that it is, uh, what does innovation understand that it is a culture?
Um, what is one or two things that you do a to inject it in your people? Let us, let us talk about bit people, because one way is just, as you said, taking an engineer, connect her with an artist. Find the commonality, but more importantly, the, the dissimilarity and let them work together. So [00:23:00] as you mentioned, they want to create something new.
What is the other thing that you do to instill this way of thinking in your way in your people?
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah.
Well, there is several critically important things. First, before you instill anything, you must give them the space. And you must give them the freedom. Then you must give them the trust that if we are asking them to make this change, we are going to give them the time and we are going to invest in them to do it.
So, a lot of innovation initiatives, what happens is you have your day job, nine to five, Monday to Friday, nine to five at a minimum you are already super busy with 10,000 projects you must deliver, and you are already completely overloaded. And then some executive comes to you and says, I want you to help with this innovation project or innovation initiative.
And you are expected to do that in the time spare time. You do not have, and with zero extra investment in your training or anything. So, you really must, [00:24:00] this is, and therefore innovation efforts fail. And therefore, people come to despise the next innovation initiative, because they are being true at so many times.
So, you must, you must plan this out carefully with people processes here at your processes. You must give them the time then that their management chain needs to be supportive of this and help them along this journey. And you must let them know that this is something we do in bell labs, quite a lot.
You are going to work on this project. You are going to do this thing. We guarantee you that your previous job is there when you are done, whenever you finish, and you come back on, you tell us I am ready to come back to my old job. It is there for you. So, there is, you must reduce the risks. You must put all that in place to build trust and not have them fearful of this initiative, helped them understand that it is not just a check the box.
You have to put all that in place first right now, then when you get that in place, and if you convince them to be part of it, then you have to start helping them, see the world through a different lens, see the world in a different way, because they’ve come typically [00:25:00] most people that are, that you want to bring into an innovation.
Culture is not, not naturally innovative. At least they have not tapped into that side of them. So, you must break them out with their current ways of thinking their current ways of doing you have to help them very quickly understand that almost at an extreme, see the world exactly the opposite, do everything exactly the opposite way you have been doing.
I give them the freedom to do that. And you must try as quickly as you can put in a way that is comfortable for them. Break them out of what they know is the stage of school. So that is the first kind of two ways I would say then, aside from that, it is all about how people think, eh, bringing them into contact with different thinkers, different people, different experiences, different cultural backgrounds.
I mean, one part of it is what we do in the art program is bringing artists in, but It is not just that as art is different to tech, it is not within the artistic base. We have. We have an, uh, we have, I mean, I do not want me to say a complete representation of the breadth of humanity, but [00:26:00] we come as close as we possibly can within the size of our program.
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
Domhnaill Hernon: So, the level of diversity that we have, and I call it diversity of everything or full spectrum diversity, the level of diversity we have on a human level within our art program, because of the artists we work with. Means that we are exploding the concept of diversity and we are, we are exploding the concept of cognitive diversity because of the extreme levels of diversity that we embrace within the artistic collaborators.
So, you see where we are touching on the concept of diversity and in almost every dimension, you can imagine as much as we can within the size of our program. I am not saying we represent all of humanity, but we do our best to try and represent as much as we can. And that level of. All these differences, all these different ideas and ways of thinking and ways of living, all of that is then meeting the arts and technology ideas and ways of living and all of that through that collision of all those differences is where new properties emerge.
And that is what innovation and creativity is.
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
Oh my God. I mean, I would say [00:27:00] so many things that resonates with me that, um, Yeah, I do not, I do not even know how, how long this podcast can be, but, you know, I see it already talking for hours. Um, I want to ask you, maybe we will talk about some examples, because I think if we can help, um, I think the listeners lend this concept that you are talking about into concrete example, and I think you are doing amazing, eh, work in the different, eh, projects, because.
Not only that you have diversity of a gender of professions or cognitive diversity, but you also work with different technologies and. I want to speak with you, maybe an aspect that everyone is obsessed with and everyone talks about experience and there is a beautiful project that you did in the lab. Um, with one singer that reignite experience, and I always say for people that interested in experience.
[00:28:00] Why they need to talk be without this, because for me, artists are not product oriented, that experience oriented and the moment you are experience oriented, your whole mind work that way, how I can make it experiential for the user. And I want to hear from you some of both the projects that you have in lab.
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah. Sure. So you, you mentioned, um, I think BEATIE Wolfe as the singer, uh, that you referenced Seoul a number of years ago, we worked on a project with BEATIE and she’s very interested in how she can leverage technology to build a better connection with her fans, which our audience, and she had worked on a number of different technologies prior to working with us, to kind of engage people in a, in a more interesting, more human way.
And I, and I agree with you this concept, that is the artist, um, Thanks about experiences and you know why that is because it is part of the human condition. I mean, think about our humanity. Think about [00:29:00] how we go through life. Everything is a, is an experience. It is either a mundane experience that we have come to know, or it is a new experience that kind of excites us or maybe puts fear into us, but the brain is always seeking out new experiences, right?
So, it is looking for patterns to make sense of patterns and then. Where can you have some all and inspiration within that and how can we grow and learn? And that’s why things that we do every day for our lives become embedded. And we do not, we are not even conscious of it anymore, but then something different, something changes and suddenly, your brain lights up.
Right? So, there’s just parts of the human condition. That is what I said earlier that that’s how artists are highly tuned into that side of it. So, with BEATIE, for example, There’s several years ago. I mean, things like Spotify in an online streaming services were taking off, but they are not, they are not that old.
Right. They are only around a few years. This was back in 2016. We worked with BEATIE or 17 maybe. And she was super interested in when she was younger. She used to get [00:30:00] a vinyl, a record, right. A vinyl with a, with the cover of the album and she would open it up in a certain way, very physical and tangible. And she had read.
The outside of the coverage, you would open the sleeve and she had read the artist’s notes about each song and there would be pictures on the inside. And then she had put the vinyl on the record player, and she would play, and she had listened to the music and read the notes of the artists at the same time. And she had this Sonic experience that was combined with this tangible, physical ceremonial experience.
Like the ceremony of you buying the thing, opening the dream, and reading it right now. So, she. Became very interested. And then how all of that has changed in our modern, digitally streamed age. Right? So, we are listening to Spotify, MP3, compressed and music stringed over some digital interface. Where is the ceremony, where is the tangibility, where is the physicality?
Where is that connection between you and the rest of the arches told some work. [00:31:00] So w what a project we worked on with BEATIE called roll space, the whole idea was how can we experiment with bringing. Ceremony and physicality and tangibility to digitally streamed musical album. So, for example, I mean, we ended up doing, and I will not go into it in too much detail, but we ended up doing work many years ago.
Would I wish I augmented reality and virtual reality and how we connect with people with her song and how we, we built a virtual landscape that represented a BEATIE’s imagery in her mind’s eye. And she talked about the song. We built that out. In true AR and VR. And then you were able, you were able to enter a channel on YouTube where the music was playing live from a record player in a very famous room.
We have in New Jersey, a special sound room, and you would enter in a certain moment in time, and you would be engrossed in these visualizations that she created. And you could explore them in 360 and sometimes the visuals move fully virtual, sometimes augmented somebody sometimes fully physical of the room and all these kinds of things.
We really try to [00:32:00] embrace a multi-sensory. Experience to bring people and connect, especially connect to people deeper to BEATIE as the artist and bridge this gap between artists and audience. And that was one of the first projects we did when we kick started this program several years ago. And that is just, uh, an example of that, of when, when you work with a technologist and engineer scientists, and you talk about AR and VR.
They are going to try and build you the next version of a VR goggles that might be slightly smaller in size, or that might, the battery might run a little bit longer, but when are they ever going to consider the depths of the human experience when they designed that technology? And that is a prime example of the inspiration we get as technologists from working with an artist.
Nir Hindi: Amazing.
Um, and. Another thing that they, you know, everyone obviously speak is empathy and how we need to create technologies that empathize with the user, make sense to them, et cetera. I [00:33:00] wonder, do you have projects that explore empathy or how to foster it that you are doing without this? Yeah.
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah, we do. We have lots. Um, let me, let me back up a little bit. Let me share my kind of high-level thoughts on empathy because. I agree. It has become a little bit of a buzzword, especially what it is coming out of design thinking. Right? So, in the design thinking methodology, one of the pillars I believe is to empathize.
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
Domhnaill Hernon: And they talk about quote unquote human centric, design principles. Now, when I see design thinking, being applied, and when I see the work of, on the output of designers, I am when I am part of the design process with designers. I do not think they take the concept even close to fair enough. Or, or I would say another way I find it very superficially used.
Right. So, what they say is, Oh, let us try and understand the user. And then they, they put a user in some user testing environment, and they ask [00:34:00] them to use their product. And then they see if they like the product or will it change the UI or the UX or will the moveable and their change of booking colors and things.
That is all fine. I mean, design has. A critical role in doing that. That is not empathy for me. That is, that is just understanding those, a human being like my UI, my UX, or the color of my button, or do they, like the, the click of the book. And when I press it, I mean, that’s not empathy. That is just user testing.
There is already a name for that. Empathy would be what is going on in this person’s life? What are the core traits of our humanity? What are the core traits of the human condition? What are the things that make us human generally now within that culturally, socially, personally, how does this person fit within those traits of the human condition more broadly?
What is it about their life, their existence, the way they see the world that makes them want to, or not want to engage a technology or a product a certain way? How do I understand that at a human level? Not if they [00:35:00] click a button or not. If they can navigate my website through three clicks or five clicks.
No, it should be speaking to their humanity. Now, the reason people do not do that because that is exceptionally complex, I am not saying that is easy, right? So, when you, when you have a generalized framework like design thinking, the power of it is that it is generalized. Lots of people can use it, but it is power results with weakness that you miss all the new ones, and you miss all the complexity of humanity.
So, first, I just want to say, when I think about empathy, it is about understanding our humanity broadly, as broadly as you can. What’s what makes us special as humans. But then also thinking about the individual, how are you different from me? What is your lived experience? How do you see the world?
How can I develop an experience that will tap into that for you, but at the same time, talking to something different for me?
Nir Hindi: And you think this is where art comes in?
Domhnaill Hernon: I believe art can significantly help with us, or at least it has helped me in my thinking of this quite considerably, because as I [00:36:00] said earlier on.
They think about humanity and the intersection of humanity and technology in a totally different way. And, and everything they do in my view is through the lens of our humanity. So, they might not speak about the human condition. They might not be able to call out the traits to you necessarily, but in the back of their minds, almost subconsciously, everything they do is, is through that lens.
So that certainly helps that different way of thinking. So, when I think about empathy, it is about. Understanding the individuals at the human condition, what is different between you and me and everyone else? How do I understand the differences, but how do I tap into the commonalities and how do I design an experience such that you will get as much out of it as me, but what you get out of it is not the same as me?
And that is extremely challenging. I am not saying it is easy. So, empathy that that is one kind of comment about empathy. The other thing about empathy is. My favorite definition of empathy, people that I think always mix up sympathy and empathy, empathy [00:37:00] is that sympathy is you can kind of understand something from someone else’s perspective, right?
In my view, empathy is that you are moved to action to do something different because of that, it is a very simple thing to say, Oh yeah, I kind of get where you are coming from. I can see the pain you are going through. You know, I’ve kind of been true that, okay, now, bye. See you later. Talk to you as what their time.
That is sympathy. Empathy is, you know what I, I, I feel where you are coming from. I think I can help you in this way. I am going to physically act; I am going to change something about myself. I am going to help you. I am going to put effort in to change the situation. That is empathy, how you design solutions and experiences, or even products.
If you are talking about empathy, I mean, if that is your goal, how do you do that in a way that people are moved to act. And change and put energy in, and that they are going to do it themselves, such that they might help someone else. That is what empathy is now. I do not hear anyone talking about it that way.
Certainly not in technology, certainly [00:38:00] not in product design, certainly not in design thinking. They use it in the most kind of superficial way, which honestly frustrates me a little bit. But at the same time, I can, I can understand why they want to do that. So, when, when we talk about empathy, Our research vision.
Our long-term research vision is to develop ways for humans to communicate on an emotional level, such that they can better understand each other, such that we can break down the barriers exist. And the reason we do that is because I truly believe the spoken word and the written words like the way where you are communicating now is inherently limited with respect to how you can share emotions.
And I think then with technology, we make that even worse. Right? We take something that has, are already fundamentally limited with respect to emotion sharing, and then we turn it into emojis, or we turn it into 140 characters of text, right. Or, or we do a video call, right, where we are pretending like this is the same as us being in person when it absolutely would be, is not.
[00:39:00] We’ve lost all the other ways of us building a connection because of the way we are built as humans. When we mediate this. Relationship true technology. So, our big long-term research vision on a lot of the, the strategic glue or division that binds all our activities is when we partner with a university, a museum and artist, it does not matter.
We are always thinking how this person, or this Institute can help us ask the right questions of human connection and help us build solutions towards solving a problem. And when I think about empathy, I think about emotion transfer and sharing emotions between people and going beyond the limitations of the spoken word and the written word and emotion transfer is just one important pillar of empathy in general, but empathy should be something that helps you understand other people and then moves you to action.
That is my kind of definition of empathy.
Nir Hindi: Well, I, I think,
yeah, um, [00:40:00] I, I cannot stress how I agree with everything that you say. I always say that, um, design thinking it is a, it is a great tool, but at the end it is a tool. And I think that out mentality or artistic mindset as I defined it is by naturally.
is more inclined to understand that. That is why I see often out of this there’s social leaders that are using the art is, is a vehicle to highlight human conditions, to, to spotlights on things we do not want to see, uh, and kind of asking us the hard questions that. We would like to ignore, uh, and it is, it is fascinating the way you put it all together.
I think it is, it is super articulated. Uh, I am interested. So how do you, how do you bring it into the [00:41:00] project that you did without this? How did you tackle empathy or maybe empathy, empathetic communications in the different projects that you had?
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah. So, in each project we kind of touch on a different element of it.
And we do not have a single project where we have brought it all together. That is why it is a long-term research mission. And that is why it is very challenging. So, this is what we are working towards. And in fact, we are, we are starting the project. I only feel comfortable now after many, many years of asking questions and many, many collaborations and speaking to so many people from all walks of life and all disciplines that now I feel like we’ve, we know the right questions and.
Once, you know, the right questions, you can start thinking about what the right answers are. And we are about to start testing some of those answers we are at the very early stages, but one example, a project would do to it. An artist called Lisa Park projects was called blooming with Lisa, her previous work before she worked with us was all about putting sensors on [00:42:00] people in social environments.
In other words, couples doing couple eating, right? So, listening to music or, or hugging or whatever. And she would try and make visible the invisible social signals between those people. So, she would put sensors on them like a heartbeat sensors or a, or a brainwave sensor or something that does not really matter.
And then she would monitor those signal changes when people interact with each other, and then she would make that invisible connection visible by sonifying as turn it into sounds or music, or by visualizing it by doing something else. So, we were super interested with Lisa’s philosophy and how she told you about the human connection with respect to making visible these invisible human signals or relationships and with Lisa, we worked with her and we asked her to, if she could really focus on the aspect of touch.
So, what is it about touch physical contact that is so important to the human condition? So, we worked with Lisa for well over a year. Very interesting project. [00:43:00] Eventually we, we came on this project called blooming where she wanted to have people enter an exhibit and artistic experience. She wanted them to physically touch, but when they touch, they would make something change in the environment.
And what she ended up creating was a type of holographic cherry blossom Lisa Park is from South Korea originally, but she works in the U S and the cherry blossom has immense spiritual and cultural significance in that region. And it reminded her of home and minded her, of her lost relationships with our family and so on.
So, would you do, as you would enter this exhibit space, it was quite dark. You would stand on these very basic sensor pads and, and up to four people would have to be more than one. There always had to be at least two people to make connection. And if you, when you physically touched, held hands, hugged, whatever, put your hand on their back, kiss And the cherry blossom would activate and grow in front of you in different ways, depending on how you made physical contact with other people. [00:44:00] Yeah. People, I mean, this looks stunning on the video. You can just look it up online, but to experience this, what takes it to a whole new level. And people broke down and cried.
We had husbands and wives that cried. We had them doing this with their kids and they cried with complete strangers that got extremely emotional. We had the feedback we got was exceptional that people realized. That this part of, our humanity has been quite substantially lost in our modern existence because we spent so much time on our smartphones and tablets and our computers and whatever, watching video streaming services on our TVs.
That the level of human connection, physical human connection that we have in modern society is nowhere near, especially in the Mo in the first world would say is nowhere near what it used to be in the past. And of course, think about 2020 and the pandemic. I mean, it is, it has gone from something that I was already a low level to zero now by necessity.
So, we are completely missing this and Lisa’s work. And again, this is one of those examples of the [00:45:00] power of the artist. Yeah, not just true, by the way, the technology had nothing to do with the technology, as you said, was just a tool that allowed us to make visible these connections in a certain interesting way.
But the whole experience that Lisa set up, how you entered the space, the lighting, the sound, and the activation of the cherry blossom in a certain way, how people felt compelled to connect and how they were moved emotionally after they connected. And that whole thing only an artist can do that. And I can tell you.
When I work with technologists and engineers and scientists, and we talk about physical touch and unusually, it is true. The terminology of haptics, right? So, like the way your phone vibrates in your hand, and people think work a lot about in haptics for virtual reality, they would have just built these humongous, big robotic, clunky haptic gloves, and these VR controllers.
And they never, never would have gone down this path that we went down with Lisa, because of that artistic perspective.
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
First, it is a great moment to mention that we will add the [00:46:00] links to the show notes for everything you mentioned. Um, and even the photo that you use when you want to show, eh, the technologies we are developing for a human touch, these big and, and unhuman technologies.
So., I mean, I am interested to hear from you. What, what do you think are the main challenges we have with technology today and how are these can help us solve it?
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah. So, a lot of technology today is kind of, software based would say, I mean, there is a lot of hardware, but the things that move fast out in the market are software based.
So, I have the issues I have with technology is that. Practically everyone that develops technology is, is blind, completely blind to how it will affect humanity because of the way we are trained. And practically every [00:47:00] executive in business is completely blind to the negative downstream effects. The reason like executives and business, our work on a quarterly basis because of market pressures.
Some of them can see a year, but they are, they are very short term. They were only in the role a few years. They are super interested in those short-term incentives and they are under immense pressure by the market. So, they are the ones that are making the decisions on where money gets invested and what technologies go to market.
They are the ones making the decisions and they are completely blind to the downstream consequences. They are blind by their training and they are blind by the pressures put on them by the market shareholders. And then you have the people developing the technology, the engineers, R and D. who are completely blind to the consequences.
So, we have the makers, the decision makers and the makers that are blind to the effects that their technology will have on humanity. And that that is a serious concern for me that we must change that we must change that true, how [00:48:00] people are educated in the STEM subjects. We must change that true expectations on leadership and business and in a way, ultimately, I would hope that somehow the market starts pushing different pressures on leaders and companies, and that leads to more sustainable action because the market itself is just driven by greedy, near term incentives. So that is when I different kind of way. I think about it as you know, I was trained in the physical sciences, I am an aeronautical engineer, so designing airplanes, you know, and I have, I work with civil engineers, people design, bridges, whatever.
I, you know, I kind of know all that. The mechanical engineering, the fluid engineering. In my training. When you develop a solution, it is hard to have safety factors in place. So, I designed an airplane wing that airplane wing must be able to carry three times the maximum possible load you might ever perceive in a storm condition.
Right? You build a bridge [00:49:00] that bridge must be able to carry 1.5 or two times more than the maximum possible little you could ever sit on it. And that bridge most last 200 years. And I could go on and on, right? There are these safety factors, or I would call them human safety factors. Right? You do not just design an airplane, put it up there, put people in it and then have it fail and say, Oh, we are going to fail fast and learn.
It is complete nonsense. Right now. Think about the software world. That is exactly what they do. They troll out biased algorithms and the trout algorithms that they do not even understand themselves. Right. And they are trolling out these models on products in the software world, and this nonsense from Silicon Valley where it is about failing fast and learning.
It is the greatest harm I think, to modern society that I have heard in recent times. And no one is saying anything to these people because its market is doing well. I mean, shareholders and share prices are soaring. And executives are getting [00:50:00] very big bonuses and R and D people are being paid a lot of money because there is such market need.
So, who is going to call them on this because this notion of failing fast is, I think extremely harmful? And you, I believe that they would say the computer sciences or the software development or a business that relies on software substantially. They should be forced to have human safety factors built into their technology and they should be accountable.
You cannot just put an algorithm out to the world and to be biased against certain people and you stay in business as far as I am concerned, that is the equivalent of putting an airplane in the sky that falls out of the sky.
Nir Hindi: Yeah. You
know? Um, yeah, no, I think, you know, again, um, I think over here, how artists work with technology and there is one out of this Ben Goss that in 2012, Understood.
The dislikes create kind of anxiety. So, he developed his own, eh, Dematricator [00:51:00] and basically removed the likes from Facebook and Instagram, I think, or Twitter. So, you can just. Focus on what you are writing or what you are reading instead of focusing on, Oh, I did not get enough likes. And what does it say about me?
So again, I think it is bringing everything you, you just said about art is how they look at the, from a human perspective, how they ask difficult questions, how they create a different experience in, in, yeah. And I want us to see different angles.
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah. And I think, yeah, and I think, you know, you mentioned something interesting, maybe just prior to pressing record when, say the difference between artistic outposts versus artistic process or thinking or mindset.
Right. I mean, a lot of people see a painting and you either like it or you do not right. But what you might not realize, and I have been very lucky to work. Very closely [00:52:00] with artists is. The culture process and the mindset and the perspective behind that piece of work, that piece of work is just the manifestation of an entire way of thinking.
And one of the downsides I have with artists that often are just presented to general community in quite an esoteric abstract artsy way. When you look at a painting and you either appreciate it, or you do not. A lot of a lot of the general community might not appreciate fine art of any form.
Well, it is super interesting to me is you, if you get token to the artists and you learn from them on their perspective and what motivated that piece of art and how that art is an evolution of their own mind and consciousness and living in, and then that opens your mind and you think, wow, there is so much going on in this artist’s mind that I was not even aware of in my own life.
And how might I think about myself in a different way because of. How they think about the world and that is, that is for me, it is the process of the mindset and the perspective [00:53:00] that we tap into. And then the output, by the way, these projects I tell you about the output is secondary. We, we believe we, if we collaborate well and we work with good artists, we are going to have a good output.
And the output is good for us. We get to show the word, right? That is not what motivates our work. What motivates our work is the exchange of knowledge. And the creation of new ideas on the learning in both sides, right from the artist and the engineer, but the engineer teaches the artists in different ways and it is that combination of old knowledge and all those new ways of thinking is what drives this program.
And then interesting artwork is just a kind of boldness on the cake.
Nir Hindi: Yeah. So, so I have a question. So why we are so obsessed with STEM education and not starting to think broadly and saying steam, let us bring the art into the science, engineering technology and math.
Domhnaill Hernon: Yeah, well, I, I, I do think that the steam movement has got a lot of momentum and, and it does seem to be growing globally, which is great to see.
I believe STEM [00:54:00] is so popular and I go back to again, market pressures. And pressures on executives and the future of humanity is technology, right. And everything we do from this day forward, everything, every business, every, everything is probably going to involve technology to a large extent. Every company in the future will be a technology company, whether that is what they call themselves or not.
Right. So, w we’ve we are so dependent on technology and we call evolve. Of course, we create technology. So, if you want to be successful in any form of technology, you need technologists, you need engineers, you need people highly specialized in these subjects. And that is why some STEM was so popular that these people there is a desperate demand for their skills, for their brains.
They are trained in a certain way to use equations and algorithms at speed to generate revenue, to provide some differentiation in the marketplace. And again, if businesses require this and if the market demands it, and if [00:55:00] executives, certain things that are expected of executives, then that is the way STEM subjects are taught in college.
And the way people in STEM are expected to apply themselves in their work. That is not going to change. Now, there is a movement and bringing the A and the arts in. Bush is that being told at university level. Largely? No, it is only in a few universities that are kind of scratching the surface. So, if people are being trained in a certain way to college, to education and either high school or whatever, or third level, then the world will not change that needs to change first.
And then how the expectations on executives and business until that changes, it is not going to change either. So, there’s kind of both sides of the equation that be addressed at the same time. And until that happens, people can have all these steam initiatives they want, they can bring the and all they want, but there’s such extreme market forces and market pressures out there though.
I do not really see that making a meaningful impact on [00:56:00] anytime soon, unless we take a bigger look, a more holistic look at what is going on in the world in general.
Nir Hindi: Yeah. Maybe changing our own MBA programs. Into bringing this, uh, or just listening to people like you, that doing it and starting to think about it.
Domhnaill Hernon: I agree. I think that is one quick way. Right? MBAs are typically future leaders. So, if you can educate them, even though they are often later in life, I mean, you are not doing them with teenagers, right? Yeah. If you could educate them the right way, they might be the ones in time to drive that change in business.
But we also need to be educating teenagers and young college students and executives and then be as students in every, everyone in between. And the other thing is for me personally, what, what I, what frustrates me about the lack of this globally is. One, I had so, so much personal growth from it that I wish others could have that.
Like I, as I said, I had an undergraduate and a PhD [00:57:00] and I did an executive MBA and several years ago, and I had so much experience in my job. And I worked with so many different companies and startups and university, you name it, right. It just had, I was very privileged and had a lot of exposure to a lot of things and a lot of people.
And as much as I thought I knew. I realized I knew nothing. When I started working with artists, they had this whole other way of looking at the world and I have personally grown so much as a person because of that. And I am frustrated that others cannot have that opportunity as well. And I think they should.
And then also I think about the frustration I have on. The way technology is developed and the way we, as people are expected to consume technology and it is completely missing that connection to our humanity. And that also strikes me and I, and I believe this intersection of arts and technology can solve that.
And by the way, not to the detriment of revenues and not to the detriment of the market, I mean, You can still do all that, but at least let us consider our humanity.
Nir Hindi: Yeah, the spirit, [00:58:00] totally. I mean, everyone speaking about employee engagement and employee happiness and employee, without understanding how powerful art and artists can play that role of shaping a culture, not only creative culture.
I would say fulfilled and in and satisfied culture in, in organization. Domhnaill So we are getting into the end of the podcast. And I want to ask you the last question you play the fiddle and, and I am interested when you started to play the fiddle And maybe you can explain, even for our listener, what is briefly the, the, the difference between a feeder and a violin and what, how, how music played a role in your life.
Domhnaill Hernon: Um, Okay. So, to my mind, as far as I am concerned that there’s very little difference between a fiddle and a violin, [00:59:00] uh, the main differences, the style of music played and then the terminology within that style of music. So, violin is typically used in more classical type of music and more contemporary type music.
And fiddled would be used more in folk type music. So, I play traditional Irish music. We refer to it as a fiddle. There is those there is technically, typically one smile, one minor difference, not just in terminology, but the type of string you use for classical music is different to the type of string I would use for traditional Irish folk music.
Nir Hindi: And how long, how long you are doing it.
Domhnaill Hernon: He started playing the fiddle. I think when I was 11, I am I am from a very musical family. My father is a professional musician. He plays what is called the book and accordion. my mother is a professional musician. I have two brothers that are extremely good musicians.
So, I grew up in a musical region geographically, and I grew [01:00:00] up in a musical family. And music was just always around me from a very young age. It is something that comes so natural to me. I do not, I do not think about it analytically. I do not study it. I just play it. and that’s often people ask me. Has that influenced me, the work I do today?
I find that a very difficult question to answer. I think, I think it clearly has implicitly. I mean, it must have arrived. My brain is wired a certain way because of that music. But when I went to college, I became an engineer. I did not focus on i stopped playing for quite some time. And I see myself today as a, as an engineer or technologist.
I do not see myself as a musician on sometimes I can go six months without even. Remembering that I played the fiddle exist. So, I, it, it clearly has something there, but it is not an explicit motivation for the current work I do that I can speak to. It must have had an influence. but yeah, that is the, my background.
So, I have a musical [01:01:00] background from a musical family and, and that afforded me a lot of interesting opportunities at a very young age. I would say, as I traveled around Ireland a lot at a very young age with my father playing music and I traveled around some other parts of the world playing music. You know, at a very young age, in my young teens and mid-teens, and that opened my eyes to the differences between people and culture and regions.
And I became quite interested in those differences. Not fearful of them was quite intrigued by why do the French, like their bread that way? Or why do the French speak that way? Or. Why do they mean the thing that way? Or why do the Germans do it this way? Or why, why do, why does the different region in Ireland that’s only two hours’ drive from me like a different type of food that we do not really have in my region, then all these kinds of things, super interested in those differences.
and I think that exposure to those differences across humanity at a very young age, through music, I think [01:02:00] has played a significant role in the way I think today. Although it has probably taken me a long time to get there if you know what I mean?
Nir Hindi: Yeah.
First, I want to say big, big, thanks for sharing all the amazing story of EAT that I learned about even today, just from this conversation and your beautiful articulation.
I think at least what I took from this conversation, this the way you spoke about empathy was. So beautifully articulated, at least for me. and I want to say big, big, thanks again for your time.
Domhnaill Hernon: Well, thank you for having me and, uh, you know, congratulations to you for promoting this type of topic. Right.
And getting this information out there. It is critically important that you and others do more of this. So, I am very happy to share and have a fun conversation.
Nir Hindi: Thank you very much. [01:03:00] One second. Let me save it. I always say that is the moment of truth, you know.