Will Robots Design Our Future?  

Automation is changing our lives. Robots can already perform physical work more efficiently than their human counterparts, making many traditional professions obsolete. So far, expert work requiring higher cognitive capabilities has been considered unaffected by this development, but for how long?

Computers are already capable of performing tasks which have only recently been considered the domain of human experts. Already back in 2007, I visited a profilic engineering studio in India, where the engineers proudly presented a software application which automatically designed a car bumper for optimal absorption of impacts. Ten years and many innovations later, artificial intelligence is composing pop songs in the style of Beatles and Irving Berlin. Automated creativity? Not quite.

A McKinsey report titled “Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet)” confirms the logical conclusion: predictable physical work, data collecting and data processing are highly susceptible to being automated, whereas activities related to managing others and applying expertise are least susceptible. In short, creativity and human interaction are activities where machines will be having the hardest time taking over.

This has a direct impact on the work of designers. Some design tasks can surely be automated; for example, variations to the layout and design elements on a webpage can be automatically generated, evaluated and deployed to develop an improved user experience. Similarly, automatically collected data concerning dimensions and mobility of the human body can be used for automatically improving the ergonomics of a vehicle cockpit. Many such tasks will be performed by machines more efficiently than they are by humans today.

But machines do not really understand human desires or question our motives – they simply rely on vast amounts of data to draw logical conclusions. This is actually how Flow Machines (the automated pop song composer software) works: it analyzes songs which already exist and creates new ones in the same vein. Hardly creative – clearly missing the human component. The latter is an important issue in itself: Who will want to go to a concert where a computer performs? Or buy an object of art designed by artificial intelligence? Automation is rising, but another force to reckon is the steady increase in people’s wish to engage themselves with real, meaningful experiences.

In a future where people will have more and more spare time in their hands, skillfully designed experiences will be in high demand. It is up to designers to deliver.



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