Featured Image: Future Streetscape (Future Cities Design Lab, 2020)
As an avid science fiction and speculative design enthusiast, the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) offers thrilling opportunity to imagine a future transcending limits of technology and feasibility. However, we are still far away from sentient AI i.e., machine consciousness, á la Terminator (machines that think for themselves) or the android on Lt. Co. Data on Star Trek: Next Generation.
On the other hand what we do have are – complex algorithms, coding and learning systems, programmed to respond in a prescribed manner, to autonomously learn (ML) from its environment and evolve into more intelligent algorithms (AI) in order to problem solve; almost like a human mind, but still, not quite like one. An easy to understand example of this is Amazon ‘Alexa’. Alexa can remember your last playlist and recommend a new one most suited to your musical preferences. It can offer helpful facts like the precise position of the sun on any given time of the day, however, it can’t yet offer critically profound opinion based on introspection, unless it is already in its databank.
Even in design, AI & ML enables us to compute large sets of disparate, dynamically evolving information and helps us make better design decisions. In other words, what machine logic can do in seconds; designers would need years and months, to arrive at the exact same conclusion. This ability to quickly navigate through dense and variable information and accurately respond is seeing earnest applications in the world of design.
Across cutting edge design fields AI & ML technologies are augmenting 1) how we design and build the tangible artefacts and 2) how that built design artefact responds to its user. Choose any disciple today whether Industrial Design, Communication Design, Fashion Design, Architecture and or Interior Design; AI and ML are increasingly integrated with the use of IoT (Internet of Things), AR/VR (Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality), Automation & Robotics, Parametric Design & Architecture, UX/UI Interfaces, and even Health Care Design. Designers are using AI & ML tools like rapid prototyping, digital fabrication, design and coding of connected devices, automated manufacturing and delivery systems, parametric architecture, game design and to create intuitive design solutions
AI & ML technologies become even more relevant in Transdisciplinary Design (where multiple design & non-design activities must work synchronously) to produce large-scale and infinitely elaborate, intricate projects like urban city design.
Imagine a scenario where a whole bunch of creatives like architects & interior designers, communication designers, industrial designers have to bring their proficiency and skills together with government, engineers and city planners to design and create the next ‘Smart’ metropolis. The scope of such a project includes comprehending in great detail things like city navigation, streets structures, landscaping, transportation, commercial & residential complexes, markets, interior spaces as well as all everyday products & objects like ceiling fans and furniture – assimilating all the imaginable conveniences and affordances of modern life.
Because of AI & ML, we can now anticipate more precisely and therefore design far more holistically.
Using AI & ML, we can approximate and simulate sophisticated design variations by quickly deciphering large quantities of complex data – from dense traffic patterns, climatic patterns, suitable construction techniques, efficient material application to ecological footprint and even human behaviour, interactions or even peculiar user preferences all at once. It also allows hidden interdependencies to be visualised and thus, better solutions can be redesigned effectively; allowing intelligent, comfortable, seamless, intuitive design between users and their urban ecosystem. All of this is possible today barring reasonable constraints and concerns of cost, time and technology. In the future, perhaps we could even tweak and modify the design on command in real-time while living in such an urban utopia.
Still, one may question that if machines can do all of this, what will designers be left with? Will there be design jobs in the future?
Two of the essential skills of a trained designer is empathy and creative imagination. While AI and ML enabled technology can crunch data and recreate patterns but abstraction of thought, germinating new ideas and deep emotional resonance are thus far, and found, only in the realms of a creative human mind. Designers can understand the human context, rationalize contradictions and in fact find new applications for AI & ML. The future world needs both; while designers create meaning and value, AI and ML can help us create and deliver meaningful solutions at the cutting edge.
First Published In The Statesman, 14.04.2020