Preparing for an AI future

It seems a lot of thoughts are turning to AI right now; dreaming of the possible futures, debating how scary and / or exciting it is, companies starting to consider it in digital strategies, new products coming to market that are starting to give us a taste of this future, and of course, speculations around what Elon Musk and others are plotting.

Whether you find the idea broadly terrifying or exciting, one thing feels important; given the new facet of (albeit artificial) humanity in this future, and the very real impact it will most certainly have on our lives and interactions with each other, it feels pertinent to start to prepare ourselves for it, not just technologically, but from a mental, emotional and societal point of view. Both as designers of this future and consumers of it.

The problem with imagining the future In order to start to prepare for something, it’s helpful to know what we’re preparing for. We need to be able to imagine it. But, particularly when it comes to technological advancements and domestic use-cases, even some of the smartest minds in the thick of the very industries they’re commenting on have amusingly and famously mis-predicted and underestimated the future. Perhaps they were too close to allow their imaginations to think as exponentially as these advances have potential to grow?

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM (1943)

Plus, it’s all too easy to make sweeping assumptions, such as — ‘robots will take all our jobs!’ — while this may be true in some cases, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be less jobs. In fact, there may be more. For example, in past technological advances, automation has brought about new industries coming about from an increase in leisure time. There’s a great Freakonomics podcast exploring this very assumption and looking to what we can learn about the past.

Sci-fi can help us Historically science fiction films and books have been uncannily accurate at making predictions about how we will live in the future so we’re told.

And (sticking at my level of sci-fi knowledge here), Back to the Future II was pretty on point with a few things wasn’t it? And some of the scenarios in Black Mirror feel eerily (and rather disturbingly) possible…

So with this in mind, how can we use sci-fi to help us imagine a future? My colleague at Hyper Island, Nathan, has recently developed a ‘Design Fiction’ workshop, that he runs with our MA students, to explore ‘Black Mirror’ style scenarios and visions for the future.

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We also have a workshop in our Toolbox called ‘Unintended Consequences’ which helps us explore the unintended consequences of new technology. Out of both of these exercises, groups can come up with useful thought experiments that can be examined, and ideas for innovation.

Preparing ourselves So playing with sci-fi can help us come up with some potential scenarios to explore and start to prepare for.

But it is science fiction. We can’t possibly foresee all of the scenarios and some of our predictions may be wrong. If we can’t foresee all the scenarios then what do we need to put in place, to help ourselves elegantly transition into this new era?

  • New skills? In the certainty that the distribution of work is being disrupted.
  • Self resilience, flexibility and mindfulness? In the certainty that this new world will present challenging new scenarios we’ve not experienced before.
  • Ethical codes? In the certainty that we’re going to face some new and complex ethical challenges.

I won’t go into the first two here, just to say that a lot of organisations are already exploring these and some exist to help others get ready with these (Hyper Island included.)

But I’ll touch briefly on the ethical codes element. Nathan is also in the process of designing an ‘ethical thinking model’ — a simple model adapted from the ethical decision-making framework developed at the Centre for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

The idea is that this will provide a super simple model to triage scenarios in your head, and think critically about them, from an ethical point of view.

And we’re going to be testing this model out, box fresh, at an event we’re hosting in May in partnership with R/GA, more on this below…

Join us! Want to get stuck into this mind-bending topic with the comfort of warm company and cold beer? Nathan and I are running an informal evening studio event in London with R/GA (at their offices) on this very topic. We’ll hear from R/GA and Lloyds Bank about the considerations they have when approaching AI, and we’ll then roll our sleeves up and get stuck into a workshop to explore some possible futures and test out an ethical decision making framework on them. It’ll be energetic, experimental and fun… and it’s free :)

Register to the event