Will Zhang

Will Zhang

Race Against the AI

What do automation futures look like for workers in the service & labor industries?

Race Against AI was an interactive exhibit that told predictive stories synthesized from first-hand accounts of service and labor workers, including members of my family. The interface is live – you can interact with the interface used in the exhibition here.

Below are pics from the interactive exhibition, in addition to a video walkthrough of the digital experience with an example of a predictive story.

Automation in Numbers

This isn't just a personal story. Populations and nations across the world are currently facing multitudes of risks without proper regulation of automation and re-skilling. These are the figures that we must understand and act upon:

Why automation ethics?

It's personal, and it's fascinating.

My older relatives work in the service and labor industries, as clerks and factory workers. However, they aren't engaged–or interested–in the topic of automation. Combine that with my interest in the role of AI and automation as a socioeconomic market disruptor, and the outcome is speculative design on the Future of Work.

This intersection led me to write future narratives inspired by stories from friends, families, and strangers alike.

Where it started

Through my academic exchange at University of Arts Berlin, along with seminars from German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence and Berlin Technical University, I researched AI ethics and legislation in the European Union. Utilizing the resources and location, I began to understand how the European Commission is leading policy and regulation discussions on an international level to ethically use and regulate artificial intelligence and work automation.

How it went in Providence, RI

I wanted to tell the stories of those in the service sector - who were the most at risk of job automation, including friends and family. I also reached out to local Rhode Island labor unions with the goal of listening to their stories and experiences and to collaborate on crafting future narratives. I was also able to connect with Local 271, the RI construction industry union.

I was able to interview:

  • Construction: Construction Staff, Parks & Playgrounds
  • Transport: Trailer Truck driver
  • Transport: Long-haul Truck driver
  • Finance: Bookkeeper
  • Finance: Accountant
  • Manufacturing: Factory Owner
  • Manufacturing: Assembly Worker
  • Education: High School Teacher
  • Design: AI User Experience Designer
  • IT: Project Manager

Male / Hispanic / 40-50

Male / Caucasian / 40-50

Male / Hispanic / 40-50

Female / Asian / 50-60

Female / Asian / 40-50

Male / Caucasian / 60-70

Male / Hispanic / 30-40

Male / Caucasian / 20-30

Female / Asian / 20-30

Female / Asian / 50-60

Writing the Stories

Above is the facilitation guide that I used in conversations and co-design sessions. Through these interviews, I compiled the stories and ideas and leaned on them as inspiration to write design fiction.

Those design fiction stories are the core components of my interactive exhibition. Utilizing each story as a “Lego” block, I created individual future visualizations. Below are the 9 story units that mix and match to create narratives.

Reflections on the journey

Learning about the potential of negative disruption that unregulated AI automation has had–and may have–on society drove me towards creating these narratives. I understand that for some people, these narratives may come off as alarmist.

However, having spoken to so many people that are within the crosshairs of AI automation in the next decade, it is apparent that regulatory issues on this topic is not discussed in proportion to its affect on our livelihoods. That is why I believe we must put AI automation regulation to the same degree of importance as other socioeconomic issues like education reform, medicare for all, or data privacy.

The Process Book

Below is the process I took from sourcing inspiration, narration strategy, to installation planning.

Check out other passion projects

Race Against AI



Discursive Design

Exhibition Design

Thesis complete – view interactive prototype from the exhibition here: https://raceagainstai.github.io/
More documentation coming soon.


For my thesis project, I'm currently designing an interactive exhibition/ experience in which participants view conceptual visualizations of the future of work through narratives. Through my academic exchange at University of Arts Berlin, and lectures from DFKI (German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence), I researched AI ethics and legislation in the European Union.
Utilizing the resources and location, I began to understand the regulatory process that the European Commission is undergoing to control artificial intelligence and work automation. In combination with research in America, I will produce an future-cast experience.

Below is my project plan. More Documentation coming soon.

Future Visualization Clips

Clips are pieced together, like parts of a puzzle, to create one reflective narrative. The reflective narrative reflects the visitor's answers to the survey - details ranging from marriage status to hopes and fears of automation.

Take a peak at two sample clips below:

Project Plan and Details

Below is the full project plan. I present a shorter version to community collaborators and to request for exhibition/installation permits in public spaces.

Microbe Orchestra


Computer Vision

Machine Learning

Discursive Design

What if microbial activity can be mapped into music?

I will be designing a web application that allows people to observe microbial activity with just their smartphone camera and a plastic lens attachment. The libraries I'm currently using are:

  • tone.js: Music and Synth Library
  • darknet: Computer Vision Neural Network (users train app to identify specific microbe species)
  • tracking.js: Motion and Color CV Tracking Library

More documentation coming soon.

Proof of concept (midterm): 
Using openFrameworks to demonstrate functionality.

Recording of micro-organism activity in order to test ofxCv's blob detection and contour-tracking libraries. The goal is to store up to 10 cells (micro-organisms) from the field-of-view into a vector. Then, attach a sound sample to each cell. You can see the basic structure of how cells are tracked and stored on the screenshot at right.

Contour-tracking of micro-organisms from a river-water culture (OFxCV)

Collaborating with RISD Nature Lab for organism observation: Observing baby and adult sea monkeys (brine shrimp)

Working with the RISD Nature Lab, I'm using the micro-organisms of various aquacultures to observe for this project.