Fermi "Machines"

An experimental university project investigating the versatility of human cognition.

Dec 2020
Project Type
Design Research
Product Design
Design Thinking
Royal College
of Art
[Jul 2021]

Fermi “Machines” explores the distinctive elements of human intelligence and learning behaviours, such as advanced broad thinking skills, and how they could help us redefine the way we teach machines problem-solving.


I conducted an experiment, where It asked people to solve three Fermi problems within "machine" constraints, meaning well-defined rules and datasets.


The aim was to understand people's thinking dynamics and patterns that could potentially be translated into machine intelligence.

Project Outcome

Learning environments

Humans are able to thrive in Wicked learning environments, such as politics and ethics, by understanding how to solve complex problems. Unlike us, Artificial Intelligence has been limited by its performance to solve problems only in specialised and narrow fields, defined as Kind learning environments, such as games like chess or Go.


Fermi problems are a common practice technique to help humans develop a broader way of thinking. They allow you to formulate an approximate answer to a problem based upon a sequence of questions and logical assumptions. However, in this experiment is participants are asked to work with well-defined rules and datasets much like a machine would do.


Some participants turned any “roadblocks” they faced into pivot points to change their way of thinking and produce a somewhat accurate solution.


User & Insights

Through our primary and secondary research, we discovered that in the Chinese culture young adults tend to lack cooking skills once they graduate. Consequentially, they consume a lot of takeaway food, which was both unhealthy and unsustainable. Looking at a 2014 report we can see that students consume the most takeaway compared to other groups.

  • Age: 22-28
  • Working professional
  • Living without parents
  • Interested in a healthier lifestyle / interested in cooking
  • In control of household purchases


Data organization & Analysis

Analysing the results and turning them into presentable data was a rather straightforward process and a simple matt of categorising the different answers and questions from the participants

Synthesis & Communication

Communicating this project was definitely the most challenging part. It was an iterative process of visualising simple aspects of the experiment and progressively adding more and more information.


Even though this project is rather abstract and speculative it tough me how to navigate a scientific field with a design perspective and how to use scientific experiment processes alongside design thinking.

Interested to know more?