Closing Gaps Between Man and Machine

Amit Pitaru is a self-described artist, planner, designer, teacher and entrepreneur, whose innovations focus on human-centered computing.

Toward the end of the interview, when musician-artist-inventor Amit Pitaru tries to explain what he considers to be smart design, he mentions the unusual features of Japan’s public toilets. The Japanese obsession with sanitation equipment is fascinating, he says: Their toilet seats can be warmed up, the temperature, direction and force of the water used in flushing can be regulated, and so on. But what really astonishes Pitaru is the Princess Flush button, as it is called in Japan, which activates the sound of flushing water − but without the water.

“Someone was looking for ways to save water and discovered that [Japanese] women flush toilets often, and that is connected with a need to hear the water gushing down” because they are embarrassed by the noise they are making, he explains. “Someone figured that it is possible to create the noise without flushing water.

Daniel Bar-On

“This is the most human button I have ever seen,” Pitaru adds with a smile. “It meets the needs of the individual person and the people around him. As an artist who uses sound to create experiences in a given space, I love the way this button uses sound to turn a public space into a private place. In every project that involves me, I try to be the one who invents something like that button.”

Pitaru, 37, left his native Israel for New York in 1998 along with the rest of the (now disbanded) Side Effect band, which played a mix of music, in particular hip-hop; previously, as a pianist, he had mainly played modern classical music. In New York he began making his own musical instruments and performing on them. At the same time, he became interested in combining art and software programming and taught at several local institutions, including in a master’s program in interactive communication at New York University.

Last month Pitaru was keynote speaker at a year-end event organized by the Media Innovation Laboratory at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The event marked the end of the third year in which students in the laboratory has developed prototypes for application in the realms of media and technology. This year’s efforts focused on two areas: the connection between the physical and digital world, and Internet platforms for increasing self-awareness. All the projects on display at the event were in the field of human-centered computing in which interactive means are used to respond to human needs.

This is the type of project in which Pitaru himself has been involved since he moved to New York. One is called Sonic Wire Sculptor, an interactive device that turns a three-dimensional drawing into sound: “It introduces a simple yet deep connection between visual and audio composition,” as the site describes it. The project has been displayed as an installation in various museums around the world and recently has been adapted as an iPhone application too.

Another of Pitaru’s inventions is Rhonda, sketching software that allows the user to maintain and even expand his personal artistic style with the help of a computer.

“Ten years ago programming was already such a widespread and accessible field that you did not have to be a certified engineer, or a builder of spacecraft, to be involved in it. The challenge was to use programs to put something strange in the room − to make people curious,” Pitaru explains. “How do you get a person to act like a child, to look at something he is not used to looking at, to touch something he’s unsure about touching, or to hear things that are not always pleasant to hear? I want to be at the forefront of creating things with technology.”

Career twist

Three years ago when the economic crisis erupted in the United States, Pitaru noticed that a huge number of friends and others lost money because they had listened to people whom they did not understand, and were dealing with a complicated system that was not understood. The result was a surprising twist in his own career as he entered the relatively uncharted territories of high tech and finance.

What does an artist and a musician do in New York’s high-tech scene?

Pitaru: “I feel what is happening to the people around me. My brother, Shahar, who somehow got hooked into New York’s high-tech scene, built an application that allows people to look at their finances in an intriguing way. The elements fit, and I asked myself whether there was a way to create something that would help people decide what to do with their money even when a complex financial instrument is involved. The idea was similar to the projects I created in art: It’s like taking an instrument that works beautifully when I play it and making it work even when I am not in the room. To create an interface that would make people feel at ease in fields that do not interest them and which they are afraid of.”

The result was Plantly ‏(see‏), a pleasant and friendly program that helps people make basic decisions such as how much to invest, for how long and at what degree of risk.

“It began as a small, fun project because I was working with my brother,” says Pitaru. “At the moment we have 14,000 registered Plantly users, so we are not the only ones who think it is a good idea. If you check how most of the tools for making financial decisions work today, you see that they do not really give you information that enhances your decision-making process. The information also depends on the interests of whoever gives you the advice. But that’s legitimate. It’s business.”

In other words, it is not simple because finance people do not want us to understand?

“I don’t know, but the result is that people look at these financial instruments and do not know what to do with their money. My goal was to take all the big question marks off the table and let people be creative in the way they manage their financial affairs ... This requires serious thinking. It is important that in six months’ time, when something happens in the market, you remember what you had in mind the day you made the investment. With other financial instruments, whether by design or by coincidence, you have no idea what you did and why. How can you make a new decision if you don’t remember the reasons for your original one?”

And what did you do with your device?

“Usually in such a situation people sell their system to an organization that has lots of money. But Shahar was interested in ‘democratizing’ the tool. There is something very special in a group that is not from Wall Street, but from an artists colony in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that is ready to follow American regulations and try its hand in this area. It’s enough to bear in mind the declaration that accompanies us [with respect to the aim of Plantly: to create] ‘a risk-aware investment tool ‏(that aims not to suck‏).’ I feel I have accumulated know-how that can empower people in this area.”

How do people react to your transition from music and art to financial instruments?

“Sometimes people are shocked when I tell them I am involved in finance. I love to see their reaction. But I think people who know me understand that the different definitions of fields do not interest me. It is the creative process that attracts me, the work; it is important for me to know I am doing something good. The financial arena is a very open realm that can occupy people for years without them ever being bored.

“The amazing thing is that in the present project, there are so many creative elements that are similar to other projects in which I was involved. What is at the heart of all of them is the user’s experience, the attempt to get people to use technology in a humane way .”
I ask Pitaru toward the end of the interview what is written on his calling card, in light of all of his professional interests.

“It’s a problem,” he says, smiling. “But the calling card is not my biggest problem.

Sometimes during a flight they give you a form to fill out and there are 20 squares in which to insert your occupation. I never remember what I wrote ... and if there’s someone out there who is collecting all the forms and who compares them, he will detain me and put me in solitary confinement. In the final analysis my profession is that of an artist, a planner, a designer, a teacher and an entrepreneur. But these are ingredients, just like in soup. What changes is only the decision concerning what kind of soup I’m going to make today.”