I spent the last days of 2018 listening to an amazing podcast: Stephen Fry’s Great Leap Years brilliantly tells the story of the evolution of information technology throughout human history – from Johannes Gutenberg inventing the printing press to Alexander Graham Bell and his Bell Labs changing the course of history to Google’s AI DeepMind winning against the world champion in the complex board game Go in 2016. For one, as Jeremy Keith puts it, “you’ve got the wonderful voice of Stephen Fry in your earholes the whole time”, but Fry also masterfully creates an overall picture of all the consecutive but also somehow magically intertwined events and stories that lead us to where we are now: A present and future full of wonder, opportunities, but also unprecedented challenges.
2019 will no doubt be the year we all finally realize that artificial intelligence, or AI, is not some distant thing of the future anymore. It has already begun to permeate the software tools we use and, as Ethan Marcotte rightly points out, “instead of asking ourselves if something can be automated, maybe we should start asking who’ll be affected once it is.” Also, because we as an industry will be one of the first to witness this sea change and experience its impact firsthand. The change is already visible in tools like Remove.bg, Let’s Enhance, or apps like Prisma – and also Photoshop uses a lot of AI these days. But it already goes much, much further than that.
Last October, I had the opportunity to visit the World Usability Congress in Graz, Austria. One of the speakers, Sean Chiu, talked about how Alibaba, the world's largest retailer, uses AI to produce or, dare I say, “design” artwork for their e-commerce platforms. Alibaba created an AI called Luban(鹿班) that generates millions of high-quality, customized website banners each day. Millions of layouts. Each day. You can see it in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4izVFzarug John Maeda’s 2018 Design in Tech Report states that there are 1 million banner or e-commerce designers in Alibaba’s ecosystem – and 70 % of them face the challenge from Luban. So will designers lose their jobs to AI? Yes. Maybe not immediately and of course mainly regarding certain repetitive and tedious tasks but the way we design will – once more – alter drastically with photo editing and layout being only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Design in Tech Report, AI and machine learning is the number one emerging trend to have the biggest impact on design and future design tools with further developments in AI will possibly…
1. Construct models of our customers
2. Generate design directions on their own
3. Sort and prioritize competing constraints
4. Identify best potential ROI and more
5. Enable savings in time for designers
6. Run experiments for us and reduce risks
7. Create many variations to test
8. Scan the entire experience for inconsistencies
9. Prevent re-invention of past solutions
10. Have the potential to remove apprentice-level jobs
And those are only predictions. Maybe you’ve heard of other predictions that drastically underestimated the radical change of technological innovations, like the famous prediction by Thomas Watson, president of IBM, from 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Each time a technological breakthrough changes the way our world, our society, and our culture works, the implications are unlikely if not impossible to predict. Because, as Jeremy Keith notes in his talk “Evaluating Technology”, they create a form of singularity which means that “there is no way, that we, from our vantage point here, in the present, can possibly see what’s beyond that event horizon of the technological singularity.” Who could have guessed that it would be completely natural to talk to any person around the world via telephone? Who could have predicted that people would rearrange their living rooms around television screens that bring them news and entertainment? Who could have foreseen that people would spend hours and hours of their day looking into mobile glass devices that act as a magic door to a World Wide Web? No one.
Yet although it is almost impossible to predict the magnitude and quality of the transformative change that lies ahead of us on so many different areas, we can still be aware that this fundamental change indeed is happening and, most importantly, we can still actively influence, shape, and develop it in the right direction. Because regardless of where we live on this planet, we are all also facing many other challenges aside from the fourth industrial revolution like climate change, poverty, unnecessary wars, human diversity, social inclusion, equality, and above all: climate change. Technology can help us save the world from harm but it can also cause more suffering.
A future that lies beyond our imagination. Let us at least make sure that it, in fact, will be remarkable.