In the future, any process that can be automated, will be automated. But why wait for the future? The automisation of the workplace is already underway. It’s been the subject of dystopian fiction for decades, but the workplace takeover by machines is happening now. Sophisticated algorithms, ‘thinking’ robots and artificial intelligence are already replacing workers of all kinds. Driverless trucks, fully automated call-centres and robot baristas (only in California!) are merely the tip of the silicon iceberg.
In 2015, the Guardian cited the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane’s prediction that up to 15m jobs in the UK might be lost to robots. He warned of a “third machine age” that would widen the gap between rich and poor, and demolish thousands of administrative, clerical and production jobs. Other experts predict that even the more cognitive professions such as journalism, law and medicine are also at risk from robots: Quill is a “natural-language generation platform” that sucks in data and outputs professional-grade texts; machines can now perform routine legal tasks such as drawing up contracts, conveyancing and preparing wills; the Da Vinci robot can perform surgical operations with a precision that no human being can match – cancerous tissue once thought to be inoperable, can now be removed with accuracy.
But surely design and creative activities of all kinds are safe from the armies of robots currently invading the global workplace? According to a 2015 report from Nesta ( ), the “creative professions” are safe. The authors of the report state: “While many barriers to automation have recently been overcome, allowing sophisticated algorithms and autonomous vehicles to substitute for workers in a wider range of domains, creativity arguably still provides a big obstacle to automation.”
Surely creative activities are safe from the armies of robots invading the global workplace?
Designers reading the Nesta report might be forgiven for a spot of smugness. Most creative practitioners will nod knowingly at the report’s upbeat conclusion. They will point out that the best design comes not from routine programmable behaviour, but through happenstance, the ability to capitalise on errors, and the recognition of patterns, associations and resonances – feats only achievable by the human brain.
But I’m not so sure. And anyway, in the world of robotics, 2015 is the distant past – a technological dark ages. Every day we are presented with alarming evidence that the world of work is about to become the world of no-work. The bulk of the Nesta document is taken up with answering the question – what is and what isn’t a creative occupation? In the view of the report’s authors, it’s any job where “the use of imagination or original ideas” is used to “create something”. And along with most commentators they hang their hat on the premise that creativity is a no-fly zone for computerisation.
It’s a conclusion shared by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, authors of the book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, a key text in the discourse surrounding mass automation. They write: “On a technical level, machines today remain worse than humans at jobs involving creative work, highly flexible work, affective work and most tasks relying on tacit rather than explicit knowledge. The engineering problems involved in automating these tasks appear insurmountable for the next two decades.” But, tellingly, they also add: “though similar claims were made about self-driving cars ten years ago.”
The templated domain of social media has replaced many of the tasks once done by designers
And there’s the rub. Advances in artificial intelligence are so rapid that predictions are at best unwise, and at worst, usually wrong. And despite the admirable thoroughness of the Nesta (Creativity vs. Robots: The Creative Economy and the Future of Employment: Bakhshi, Frey, Osborne) report, its authors avoid considering the actual, or likely threats to employment in the creative sector: which is odd, since machines and algorithms can already execute routine design functions. The templated domain of social media has replaced many of the tasks once done by designers. Entire businesses are run from a Facebook page; who needs paid advertising when you have an Instagram account?
We don’t have to look far for more examples. Web platforms are sprouting up offering AI design tools for everyone: Canva (“It only takes 23 seconds to learn.”); The Grid (“We harness the power of artificial intelligence to take everything you throw at it … and automatically shape them into a custom website unique to you.”); and Autodesk’s Generative Design (“Quickly generate high-performing design alternatives – many that you’d never think of on your own – from a single idea.”) Ah, yes. The idea! Machines can’t have ideas, can they? Depends what you mean by ideas. Take Google’s DeepMind team. They developed an application called AlphaGo to play the game of Go, which succeeded in beating Lee Sedol, the world’s leading Go master. Players of the game use intuition rather than logic, and by making AlphaGo function in a way that resembles human intuition, the Go champion was outsmarted.
The founder of DeepMind is Demis Hassabis. The FT blog notes that Google paid £400m for his London-based startup, which Hassabis has described as “a Manhattan project for AI”. He is quoted as saying: “Creativity itself is something that we would hope our machines would have, and being able to think about counter-factual situations, I think, is an important aspect of being intelligent. So I think we’ll need to have that capability in a machine.” DeepMind’s algorithms use “biologically-inspired neural networks” to acquire new skills, so it seems highly probable that a machine will be able to perform many of the mechanical and mental functions currently done by designers and artists.
Ah yes. The idea! Machines can’t have ideas, can they? Depends what you mean by ideas
Should we be worried? Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk think so. Hawking has warned that artificial intelligence “could outsmart us all”, and Musk has likened the use of AI to “summoning the demon”, and described it as “more dangerous than nuclear weapons”. Putting apocalyptic visions to one side, we can, at the very least, say that the continuing advancement of AI in the workplace is inevitable. There is no corporation – no business sector – that can resist the lure of cheap labour, and as a consequence, we require a massive political reappraisal of the social policies around work and income.
The world of design has survived other technological upheavals. Gutenberg was a shock to the monks with their quills; the arrival of the Apple Mac was touted as putting an end to the professional editorial designer. But under these and other threats, visual expression of all kinds grew rather than diminished. My instinct, based on a humanistic belief in the indomitable nature of the human spirit (although this faith was rudely tested by recent elections), leads me to believe that we’ll survive this one too. Perhaps rather than summoning demons, AI will free homo sapiens from drudgery and allow creativity to rise to another level.
Adrian Shaughnessy is a designer, writer and co-founder of Unit Editions
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