- 10 October 2023
- 4 minutes
Dr Iulia Ionescu (PhD School of Design, 2023) is an interdisciplinary artist and technologist. She is also programme director for creative computing and robotics at UAL’s creative computing institute. Iulia is interested in the social phenomena that emerge in the face of increased automation and algorithmic living. Her work explores the space between the technical and social facets of AI and the co-construction of meaning in human-AI interaction.
Iulia studied MA/MSc Innovation Design Engineering at the RCA before deciding to continue her studies at the College as a postgraduate research student. Her PhD research at the RCA was sponsored by Microsoft.
Read on to find out more about her experiences as a PhD student at the College.
Dr Iulia Ionescu
What is your background and what led you to PhD study at the RCA?
My background is quite diverse, spanning architecture, design, and electro-mechanical engineering. This diversity reflects my curiosity about the complex interplay between technology and society, a fascination that no single field seemed to fully satisfy.
In recent years, I’ve zeroed in on the realms of automation and algorithmic living, a focus that I carried into my PhD.
Pursuing a PhD was never part of a larger plan, it was more of an unexpected twist in my journey that turned out to be a fulfilling detour.
Experiment 1 [Just Like Me] - physical device
Why did you decide to carry out this research at the RCA?
“The atmosphere here was all about pushing boundaries and exploring unconventional ideas, which felt like the perfect environment for my academic interests.”PhD alumni
The RCA holds a special place in my academic journey – I completed my Master’s degree here, so, when I had the opportunity to spend seven more years at RCA, I figured “why not?”
Interestingly, when I started my PhD, I was the first student to go straight from an MA to a PhD here at RCA, and that felt like a bit of a milestone. The support I received from Microsoft also played a significant role in making this decision a reality.
Beyond the logistical aspects, it was the unique blend of creativity and innovation that drew me in. The atmosphere here was all about pushing boundaries and exploring unconventional ideas, which felt like the perfect environment for my academic interests.
Experiment 2 [But Not Exactly] - physical device
What was the greatest benefit to studying at the RCA?
I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with some remarkable individuals, many of whom are still (stubbornly) a part of my life today. It’s been an incredibly enriching and creative environment, even if it does come with a (significant) touch of uncertainty. But that uncertainty can be the perfect catalyst for creativity.
“It’s been an incredibly enriching and creative environment”PhD alumni
Visualising speech - software interface for parametrically generating conversational landscapes
What are the implications or applications for your research findings?
If I had a concise answer to this question, I might have completed my PhD much sooner!
My research sought to bridge the gap between AI’s technological foundations and its social implications. I found it intriguing how AI systems were often driven by a technology-first mindset, despite being designed to emulate social behaviour.
This discrepancy prompted me to challenge conventional practices used in the design of AI systems. Often these systems were based upon how people behaved in contrived situations, extrapolating from their actions in the absence of AI rather than in its presence. My research is about developing new methodologies that capture the complex and dynamic nature of human-AI relationships, with the aim of closing the divide between AI’s technological capabilities and the complex set of expectations, values and ways of making meaning that characterise social relationships.
Quadrant depicting the relationship between the availability of affordances and perceptual information
How has carrying out this research impacted on your career?
Conducting this research has opened up some exciting doors. I now serve as the programme director for creative computing and robotics postgraduate courses at the University of the Arts London, where I have the opportunity to promote the importance of practice-based research and shape the education of future technologists and artists.
Why is practice based research important and what can it contribute to knowledge?
“There are questions that can only be addressed through practice, especially in fields such as art, architecture and design – where knowledge is embedded in practice – but also in cutting across disciplinary boundaries.”PhD alumni
There are a few reasons as to why practice-based research is crucial to research. I believe that practice-based approaches unlock a realm of knowledge that theory alone cannot fully articulate.
There are questions that can only be addressed through practice, especially in fields such as art, architecture and design – where knowledge is embedded in practice – but also in cutting across disciplinary boundaries.
Practice-based research offers a rich array of methods and approaches that can enhance our theoretical knowledge, drawing out its limitations and advancing critical positions that help us develop more robust models of the world, no matter the object of study.
Charts illustrating the psychological determinants of anthropomorphism: predictions vs results
Iulia was awarded her PhD at the RCA convocation ceremony in autumn 2023 along with 11 other PhD and MPhil students. These graduates represent a small part of the 250 strong doctoral research community at the College. They contribute to exhibitions, events, symposia and conferences at the College and beyond. Their investigations are supported by supervisory teams who have experience from diverse practice backgrounds and academic fields.
Head of Doctoral Programmes at the RCA Dr Hala Mansour commented:
“I would like to congratulate our exceptional MPhil and PhD graduates! We could not be prouder of your remarkable achievements. Being part of the College research and doctoral community is a special privilege. The RCA offers unique resources and an expansive network of brilliant minds that enrich your research journey. We are keen not just to support the research but also the researchers doing the research degrees. We can't wait to see all the incredible contributions you will make in your respective fields.”