Building Superhumans and Supermachines—a Normal Day for Riccardo Giraldi

Building Superhumans and Supermachines—a Normal Day for Riccardo Giraldi

Burton Rast
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A lifelong space nerd, I was blown away when I heard about OnSight, a Microsoft HoloLens experience that allows NASA scientists to navigate the surface of Mars using imagery captured from the Curiosity Rover. I met a creative leader of HoloLens, Riccardo Giraldi, at a conference in Milan, and was so impressed by the work he and his team at Microsoft presented.

The work was done in collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Jeff Norris, one of the NASA crew, described how people react when they experience OnSight:

"When they first encounter this project," Norris says, people "have a feeling of, 'Wow, I've lived to see this.'"

That's precisely how I felt. Mic. Dropped. It left me wanting to know a lot more about Riccardo and his work. I'll let him take it from here:

In one sentence, who are you?

An Italian, beardy guy who likes to travel and observe people, learn about the world, and wonder how to make it a better place. (It turns out you can get paid to do that.)

What do you do? How did you learn it?

I’m leading the NEXT’s (New Experiences and Technologies) incubation team at Microsoft. We work on a number of new secret devices and experiences that have not been announced yet. Most recently, the Microsoft Hololens and Windows Mixed Reality. I learn by doing. In fact, I’m still learning how to do my job, and I expect to never stop.

I grew up in a small town in Italy, which was a great place to live, but there were not many opportunities. So I moved to London and started working as a developer there at Unit9 before moving back to design. I have a mixed background that reflects my many passions: I studied electronics and design and learned how to program on the side.

Since then, I have lived in Stockholm, New York, and now Seattle, always looking for new opportunities to learn and grow.

Chrome WebLab by Google

What are your three favorite possessions?

  1. Old family photo albums.
  2. All my books, now spread across two continents, which I dream of reuniting as one big library.
  3. And of course BMO [a stuffed, plush video game console from Adventure Time] because it makes my niece laugh out loud when we play together.

What does a typical work session look like for you?

You could argue that what I really do daily is to press a lot of buttons, scribble on a whiteboard, and discuss with people. Sometimes I travel.

As a creative leader, I strive to build inclusive environments that foster creativity and enable every individual to learn, grow, and express their full potential. Every day is different. We research, brainstorm, sketch, build, discuss, and learn as much as we can to iterate and constantly improve.

What I personally do daily evolves pretty much every year, and I believe the role of designers and creative leaders will keep evolving with the rise of artificial intelligence. I would be surprised if my current job still exists in ten years.

How do you get over creative block?

Sometimes all it takes me is a shower, a nap, a walk, or a good dinner with friends. It helps me to read a lot of books, travel, meet new people, and be immersed in new realities that are far from my daily bubble. And it’s good to have a creative process, both as a reference to give you confidence when you feel lost, and as a framework to break away from when you are inspired.

Introducing Microsoft HoloLens: Transform your world with holograms

How do you see the world in 2078?

Um...let’s see. In 2078 I’ll be 94, maybe somewhere in the countryside in Tuscany surrounded by my grand kids, and hopefully I'll still be curious to travel, learn, and give back to the next generation. It might be a good idea to plan to be somewhere in the hills, just in case global warming makes my hometown a beach town.

It’s hard to make predictions, and too easy to fall into the trap of describing a dystopian future.

As designers, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to influence what future we want to live in. It doesn’t matter how small our contribution will be, it’s worth trying to push for a desirable future scenario.

My desirable future scenario looks like this:

  • New generations will learn to live together, respecting our differences, understanding each other, fighting inequalities, and respecting nature and our planet in a deeper way.
  • We will fulfill the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Education will be highly respected as one of the most important values.
  • Religion as we know it will transform or disappear in favor of a shared philosophy and values.
  • Democracy will change, evolving to a better system (probably with a different name), immune to populism and propaganda.
  • There will be no more borders that divide us, centralized governments will disappear, and so will human-vs-human military conflicts.
  • Communities will be as small as a town, but globally represented and connected beyond their geographical position.
  • Money as we know it will disappear, replaced by other ways to measure our impact and value to society.
  • We will work much less (thank you, technology), spending most of our time studying, exploring, and enjoying life. We will look back at our generation wondering why we spent our lives working eight hours a day, five days a week. We will use that time to re-discover the pleasures of the simple things that nature gives us every day.
  • Autonomous robots will take care of most activities (and jobs), freeing humankind from committing their lives to repetitive tasks.

We might have learned how to control our planet's energy, gravity, climate, and resources. Some of us will live (probably with machines) on other planets, in the ocean, or the thermosphere, working hard to give us all an alternative to extinction and overpopulation. We will find new ways to help animals stay alive. We will learn how to balance ecosystems, maybe even to re-introduce extinct species, or introduce new human-made species that will help us fight illnesses and colonize new planets, making them habitable.

The meaning of being human might change in our lifetime. We might be super humans by then, and we will have to be very careful, as there is a huge risk of creating new inequalities based on who can afford what extension. There might be incredible innovations in brain-computer interactions, connecting us to technology and each other via a collective mind.

There might also be supermachines, hopefully like R2-D2 and C-3PO, to assist us and help us be better humans.

Who are you crushing on lately?

I really like Bret Victor’s way of thinking.

Ivan Poupyrev's work is excellent and always surprising. Ishac Bertran and Claudio Guglieri are good friends, great designers, and some of my favorite people.

I feel very lucky to work with some incredibly interesting people from all over the world to help imagine the future. We are always facing new challenges—sometime solving problems for the very first time and defining experiences that have never existed before.

Riccardo in a card.
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Burton Rast
Burton Rast’s passion for solving human needs via new, connected technologies is only outdone by his love for photography and his blind cat.
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