Why a human beat IBM Watson at designing the dress of the future

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On Monday night the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute held its annual gala for the fashion elite, which, for the uninitiated, is the most exclusive theme party on the planet; tickets are $30,000 dollars each, but you can only buy one if you make it onto the guest list hand picked by Vogue editor Anna Wintour. This year, the theme was 'Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology', and it seems as if everyone heard the word technology, and decided to dress like a Svedka bot.


Now I love a metallic bodycon as much as the next femmebot, but the opportunity to wear something involving technology, rather than something vaguely futurey in aesthetic, was lost on our fashion royalty. Where was the Iris Van Herpen? A clothing designer who routinely makes 3D printing and laser cutting look effortlessly biological. I had hoped to see one of the state-shifting Hussein Chalayan gowns that range from robotic to chemically altered. Both of these designers are included in the Costume Institute's actual exhibit, but neither were worn last night. Instead the battle for best costume—because the red carpet is always a competition,—was between only two gowns: Claire Danes in a fiber optic, glow-in-the-dark number by Zac Posen…

…and Karolina Kurkova in a dress co-designed by Marchesa and IBM's Watson.

Yes, you read that right, IBM's Watson, of Jeopardy fame, helped to design a dress.

To hear Marchesa's Georgina Chapman tell the tale, they were blown away by the creative potential of this supercomputer, so they fed Watson lots and lots of images of Marchesa dresses so it could analyze the colors and textures and return the most Marchesian results. The dress itself is studded with LED lights that are reactive; IBM Watson was live processing all the tweets about the 'cognitive dress', digesting the text, extrapolating emotion, and then using that feedback to determine the color of the LED lights. There has never been a dress at the Met Gala, or on any runway to my knowledge, that incorporates the emotions of its fandom in real time through the magic of artificial intelligence. Seems like a clear win for the cognitive dress right? Not so fast.


Claire Danes went full on Cinderella at the Main Street Electrical Parade and captured the crown. Zac Posen reportedly sourced the fiber optic organza from France, though one can imagine he used the computing power of Google's search engine to do so. The dress itself was powered by a few dozen battery packs, tucked out of sight, and the imagination of one man, but it provided the 'wow moment' that everyone glued to social media was waiting for. If the Met Gala was a Turing Test, Watson failed.


In this situation, I don't think that AI could have ever come up with the solution of fiber optic organza, because it simply wasn't part of the existing data set. While the cognitive dress may have been able to process social media comments in real time, it failed to illicit the same kind of initial emotion as the fiber optic gown. For all the talk about AI being used in creative endeavors, it's clear we are still far off from convincing computational creativity. For something to truly look like the future, it can't just have the guts of a machine, it needs to have an original thought.

Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.