Designers of the second machine age

New intelligent technologies are reshaping the workplace. But has A.I. got human enough to affect jobs in the creative industry?

14.06.17 | Opinion

By Leonardo Amico

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There is a rising concern about automatization displacing humans in the workplace. No longer a catastrophic prediction of a small group of people, both the Obama Administration and Word Economic Forum have recently discussed the matter in detail.

We are undeniably in a new wave of worry about the risk of what economist Keynes called “technological unemployment” in the 1940s; a phenomenon first recorded with Luddites destroying industrial machines in the 1800s. So far these fears have proven unfounded, with technology creating far wider employment opportunities as compensation.

However, prominent researchers warn that this time is different. Many roles, such as driving, sales and telemarketing are already at risk of full automation. And as software advances, in previously off-limits areas, will we see an eventual encroachment on the previously protected creative industries?

According to key Oxford research, complex roles requiring perception and manipulation, creative intelligence and social intelligence remain safe. These “bottleneck” skills, which computation seems unlikely to replicate are more typically found in the design industries, marking them safe, in the short term at least.

Yet while the impact of technology in design seems so negligible, how shall we react to companies pitching for digital tools with our same job title?

Grid Meet MollyImage from the Grid

“Meet Molly. Your new AI web designer. She’s young, she’s learning, but she’s already designed hundreds of thousands of web pages” recites a banner for the Grid, a web design tool that adapt to the content. Of a similar vein is Logojoy: “using artificial intelligence and advanced learning algorithms to produce designs just like a designer would”. More recently, Wix and Adobe have also announced their own disruptive A.I. web design software.

Across the creative industries, we're seeing a plethora of tools, such as Jukedeck, Narrative Science and Google’s experiment Autodraw, all changing the way we create and publish content.

What to make of these contradictory perspectives? Shall we just dismiss the issue, as computers will never be able to contribute in any meaningful way to a creative task? Or should we be in fear of our creative roles?

Perhaps the solution is to move away from these black and white perspectives; to see automatization not as a threat but an opportunity.

The real potential for A.I. in design is not what it can free us from, but what it could enable us to do. A.I. has the potential to empower us in those creative and social intelligence tasks that differentiate us from machines.

Using A.I. in support of creativity is not especially new. In one of the many projects where IBM’s Watson is involved, musician Alex da Kid used the program’s emotion recognition ability to inspire his composition.

Data-driven decision making is a field where machine learning is already producing promising results, especially in the areas of healthcare and law. The same approach could be used in design, providing a real-time feedback on creative routes.

But A.I. can offer valuable contributions also when exploring the visual and material aspect of a product. With its Dreamcatcher project, Autodesk is already experimenting with a machine learning tool that generates 3D designs according to general constraints (manufacturing methods, material, cost), but not limited by any aesthetical parameters. The same process could be applied in other fields, resulting in product no longer limited by the designer’s taste, but still matching the initial requirements.

Overall, the way I see our human-machine partnership with A.I. is something like this.

  1. The designer will engage with A.I. to develop an idea
  2. A.I. will use this foundation idea to create a number of concept variations
  3. Having settled on a final concept, the A.I. will use algorithm enhanced design to tailor the product to end user’s need and even taste. 

It’s inevitable that this new technology-enabled process will modify the figure of the designer. Previously responsible for ideation and idea execution, the A.I. empowered designer will operate at a higher level, no longer controlling the final outcome.

Whether we’ll become what Artefact’s Rob Girling calls a Design Curator or what Google’s Matías Duarte calls a Cybernetic Director, what’s certain is that such a shift will certainly impact the way we work and and think mof our profession.

For a start, we’ll need to let go of our obsession with material details associated with the most celebrated design projects. It’s a trend apparent at Apple. Their famously detail-obsessed design culture is being questioned by machine-learning approach, which don’t allow any granular control over the outcome of a product.

This shift will allow the designer to gain a more holistic perspective of their work. In giving technology more autonomy, we’ll better learn how to collaborate, rather than compete, with machines.

Technology's ability to redefine the labour ecosystem is nothing new. Design’s function has always been fundamental in making sense and applying innovation to real world problems. Even in this new wave of technological disruption, design will still have its role.

In science, things got so beyond human comprehension we are already relying on machine learning in order to “discriminate, find pattern and draw conclusion”. The hyperconnected network of computers and humans we design for is is nothing less of complex. A.I. will prove to be a valuable tool to make sense of it all, allowing us to create products and service that could benefit 21th century people and society.

Illustration by Andras Ferenczy, Uniform

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