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These University of Waterloo students reimagined a more sustainable campus using AI

When Khalil Heron was tasked with creating a vision for a more sustainable university campus, he says he wanted to create “a perfect utopia.”

The second-year design studio foundations student at the University of Waterloo was told by his professor, Katherine Perrott, to start his plans using an articifial intelligence (AI) system called DALL-E.

DALL-E can design images based on written prompts and the system was created by the same developer as ChatGPT, a chat robot that’s been getting recognition lately for its ability to generate realistic conversations that sound like they came from a real human.

Heron wanted to experiment with making the final image look more stylized, like a painting or drawing.

“I wanted it to be in a solarpunk style — which is almost a cyberpunk-esque style, but with a big focus on sustainability. I wanted to create a perfect utopia world where everything is sustainable,” he said.

“I think it’s really powerful how the program can create not only just real images, but it can also create art.”

His final design included a focus on sustainable transportation and urban spaces.

‘A visual brainstorming tool’

Perrott said she had instructed students to take concepts from the university’s own sustainability reports and course readings to figure out what keywords to put into the system.

“AI tools are so new and they have an interactivity and a quickness to them that makes them really fun for students to use,” she said. “I really see it as a visual brainstorming tool in the way sketching is.”

Perrott says the exercise was meant to show students how AI can be used early in a design process to generate ideas and allow for “creative exploration in order to turn ideas and concepts and key words into visualisations really quickly.”

woman with curly hair and blue striped shirt smiling
Katherine Perrott is a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning. (Photo submitted by Katherine Perrott)

“The next step of the process will be to go through more conventional exercises using graphic design software, rendering and modelling to generate more context-specific ideas for the University of Waterloo itself,” she said.

Adjusting for the right picture

Myah Sachedina, a second-year student, said experimenting with various keywords and prompts helped her figure out what features worked best for her vision.

“I started with ‘a tall glass, futuristic building with greenscape, sustainable bullet train on bridge’ because my idea was surrounding sustainability,” she said. “But the produced image did not really match what my objective was, so I had to add more commands and change the wording a bit.”

blue and green city scape with people sitting by a green hill with a glass bridge above them
This image was created by Myah Sachedina, a second year student enrolled in the Design Studio Foundations course, using the artificial intelligence system called DALL-E. (Photo submitted by Katherine Perrott)

She said she added “photorealistic” as a prompt to avoid results that looked too cartoon-ish.

Her final design included greenspaces and modern architecture, inspired by what she’d seen growing up in Toronto.

Red, white and yellow image of an urban landscape, with a red and white bus at the centre of the picture and people walking and bicycling around it.
This image was created by Khalil Heron, a second year student enrolled in the Design Studio Foundations course, using the artificial intelligence system called DALL-E. (Photo submitted by Katherine Perrott)

Students like Sachedina and Heron found they had to be really specific about the kind of image they wanted the AI system to create.

Perrott acknowledged there’s been a big debate around artificial intelligence and academic integrity because AI tools source ideas and images from existing work on the web.

But for this project, students are only supposed to use AI as a tool and are required to reference it when they use it for any work turned in as a part of a class project.

Take a look at the other images students created here:

The Morning Edition – K-W6:35Students from University of Waterloo are reimagining their campus using artificial intelligence

A group of students at the University of Waterloo are using an artificial intelligence (AI) system to reimagine a more sustainable campus. Led by their professor, Katherine Perrott, students from the Design Studio Foundations course used an AI system called DALL-E, which can design images based on written prompts. The system was created by the same developer as ChatGPT, a chat robot that’s been getting recognition lately for its ability to generate realistic conversations that sound like they came from a real human. But instead of conversations and words, the DALL-E system spits out images. CBC KW’s Aastha Shetty caught up with the professor leading the project, and a couple of her students.

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