At this year’s SXSW, AI was a hot topic and clearly the talk of the town. A range of panels, keynote presentations, demos and a healthy dose of chatter confirmed that 2023 is the year of AI. As Microsoft’s VP of Design and Artificial Intelligence John Maeda termed it—this is “the ketchup bottle moment” for AI, and “all that GPT just came out all at once right now.”
As the dizzying pace of AI-related releases and news marches on, this year’s presenters tried to find order in the chaos. Technologists, designers and strategists shared their perspectives; some hyping up the possibilities and others cautioning about the dangers AI represents. Listening to it all, several key themes emerged, framing how designers, storytellers and other operators can begin approaching all things AI:
Several speakers discussed the educational burden inherent in AI. Google Security Researcher Patrick Gage Kelley spent his session leading a discussion on how to help people navigate an AI world. He shared many examples of what he coined explainability, stressing the importance of in-the-moment explanations, additional information throughout the product use journey, and further education beyond the product experience.
Anthony Pannozzo, Head of frog North America, discussed the power of provocations and the value of taking time to reflect and ask why. This perspective aligned with other viewpoints that underscored the importance of adopting a critical lens toward AI adoption, making sure to approach AI with an ethical stance and a principled set of policies.
A general call to experiment and “move fast to try stuff” permeated the conference. John Maeda espoused the value of getting your hands dirty and making things, emphasizing that “dirty hands mean integrity, making, evidence of being.” Ian Beacraft, CEO and Chief Futurist at Signal and Cipher, echoed this sentiment, detailing that “the future is a contact sport, and there is no room for spectators—if you’re on the field, you’ve got to participate.”
Most of the speakers I had the pleasure to hear emphasized the importance of questioning ourselves about what we can do as humans (that machines cannot do). For example, Ruskin and Morris, leaders of the art and crafts movement who, when faced with the rise of machines, focused instead on the unique things they could do that machines could not. A similar tack feels right for today, shunning fear and paralysis in favor of focusing on the probable positives—reduced costs and new ways to generate solutions and simulate customer reaction.
Ian Beacraft shared a provocative perspective stressing what he sees as a shift from incremental improvement in a specialized “career lane” to an era that favors the creative generalist. After all, if AI is poised to handle many human tasks, perhaps the skills humans would need most are the abilities to architect and orchestrate with intention. This is an optimistic view, showing that we can now flex outside of traditional boundaries and not lose our jobs, but instead we’ll lose our job descriptions.
Actress Tilda Swinton also spoke on the call for flexibility, discussing that creativity and keeping your dreams flexible, so you can have fun and stay malleable throughout your journey.
No matter your view of AI, we’ll all need to begin developing a relationship with it. Perhaps the question will not be “is it real or synthetic?” but “does this spark joy and add value?” And that is something designers have always been guided by.
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