The Designer of the Future, Part 1

Jennifer Sukis
May 2, 2018 · 7 min read

A three part series on the mindset, methods and skills designers will need as we move into the era of creating human and machine relationships.

Part 1: Mindset
Part 2: Methods
Part 3: Modes

Part 1: Mindset


In my role as a Design Principal for AI Practices at IBM Watson, and as an Adjunct Professor of Advanced Design for AI at the University of Texas, I’ve been in a unique position to observe needs, hypothesize ideas and test solutions around what might best prepare designers for the new problem spaces AI is defining.

It’s equal parts exciting and daunting to consider all the new skills and roles designers will take on as user experiences shift from transactional (ex: searching Google for a specific term) to trust-centric relationships (ex: Watson, where should I invest based on my spending behaviors, values and personal goals?).

This year IBM has challenged me to create an AI education program that will give the Watson teams a shared understanding of AI’s potential and pitfalls, and enable them to develop strategic perspectives on how it should be used to amplify their user experiences.

Alongside that work, I’m also helping UT’s Center for Integrated Design develop a course curriculum that will become the foundation for their new AI Design Masters Degree.

In short, I’ve been doing A LOT of thinking around how to teach designers about AI and what it is they really need to know to shape these new experiences. I get asked a lot of questions like, “What classes should I choose” or “Is there a method for applying AI to my product”?

That’s what this little series is about. It’s definitely a work in progress. Definitely something I’d love to hear your feedback on. And hopefully something that you can put to good use in one way or another!

Framing the Problem

If you want to work as or have been working as an AI designer, you know it’s exciting to explore such new territory. But, what you may or may not realize yet is that the reality of what you can create is limited compared to the excited, futuristic viewpoints on the topic. That’s mainly because training enough data and improving models takes time.

So if this is the path you’re on, it’s important to remember that you’re not really just building a chat bot or revealing a new insight. For better or worse, wherever AI becomes 20, 50, 100 years from now, will be a magnified reflection of who we are, how we think and the effort we’re putting in today.

Designers working in AI at this moment are establishing the foundations, behaviors, and ethical boundaries of systems that will evolve and grow to become what might one day enable the next leap in human evolution.

How dare I make such a big headed statement like that? Because AI isn’t hype. It’s not a solution looking for a problem like big buzz tech trends we’ve seen in the past (think Segway, Google Glass, Amazon Fire Phone).

It’s an entirely new paradigm.

If you’re not sure about that, take a quick look across the development of AI supporting technologies from 1946 to today (new post on that coming soon). You’ll see that we’ve been moving towards this moment for over half a century. It’s big and it’s pervasive. I like how Kevin Kelly stated it:

“AI will flow across the grid like electricity. As it becomes more deeply integrated in our lives, it will become the new infrastructure powering a second industrial revolution. The formula for the next 10,000 start-ups is to take X and add AI.”

Kevin Kelly, Futurist and Founder of Wired Magazine

Kevin Kelly speaking at TED in 2018

That’s a daunting thing to think about when you consider what an impact the internet had on our society. We simply never could have predicted what would happen in the years after ARPANET sent that first message. If AI is going to have a more profound impact on us than the internet, how can we even begin to understand and plan ahead for the effects it could have on us?

True. But there’s one thing I can tell you amidst all this change and uncertainty that should bring you a sense of calm:

The principles of good design will continue to hold true. Especially my favorite—design with the end in mind.

The End To Keep in Mind

To understand why I believe AI could lead to human evolution, I have to begin by explaining a bit about how science and our understanding of the universe has been driving the behaviors, ethics and beliefs of humanity up to today.

Egypt, 3000 b.c.

Clear your mind for a moment and imagine it’s 3000 b.c. You are an Egyptian living during the First Egyptian Dynasty. During the day you work as a metalsmith, creating bronze sculptures and jewelry. You live in the desert, you grow your own food, worry about being sacrificed for the pharaoh’s funeral, and at night you look up and the stars with utter certainty in your beliefs about the gods and the universe.

What you believe is that the universe consists of a flat earth beneath heaven — a domed sky filled with stars. Beyond — above and below — lay the cosmic waters — a watery abyss in all directions, endless, formless and dark. Your world was formed when out of the abyss came light, which gave birth to the goddess of harmony, order, law and the right way.

How do you think these beliefs effected your daily life? Your values? How you chose to spend your time? What you taught your children?

People during this time were focused on putting their energies towards survival—the lower half of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (food, water, warmth, rest, security, safety, friendships, feelings of accomplishment). Without time to focus on exploring sciences or philosophy, these cultures relied on stories about the gods to explain the physical state of the world, the universe, and contemplate what their higher purpose and beliefs should be.

Fast forward 3000 years later and new societies had freed themselves from some of the burden of survival. The city of Athens went beyond providing citizens with basics like food and shelter. People had access to education, the arts, philosophy, judicious law and free trade. They began to think more deeply about science and ethics. They made new discoveries, including establishing the first democracy, defining the value of pi, determining the size of the earth and the sun, discovering that the universe was composed of atoms, and brining neighboring cities and cultures together to compete on an equal playing field at the Olympics.

No longer were man and earth the single, central source of life in an empty abyss.

In 380 b.c. we see the effects these discoveries on the psyche of society with Plato’s publication of The Republic. He explored the idea of a utopian city called Kallipolis, describing a future whose people were led by philosopher kings and conditions were equal for all. People there aspired to the ideas of justice, friendship, and morality.

Plato’s The Republic

Just as mankind’s understanding of the universe shaped our values, morals and hopes for the future back then, it continues to do so today. Huge cosmological simulations like The Bolshoi simulation, run by supercomputers powered by AI algorithms, are giving us new discoveries around galaxy formation, dark matter, dark energy, even the origins of the universe.

The Bolshoi Simulation Visualization

How will this change who we are? What do we already see happening? My hope is that we find ourselves feeling more connected, more aware, and—perhaps with AI learning about us over the course of many lifetimes—able to overcome the fact that 90% of all human conflict is caused by miscommunication and finally understanding one another.

Sounds great right? This isn’t a new idea and definitely not one I can claim as being my own. Gene Roddenberry explored this vision of what life would look like if we overcame human limitations with technology when he created Star Trek back in the 1960's. In his world, everyone can choose their own path, unburdened from material need, free to devote themselves to the values of knowledge, justice, and compassion. As Captain Picard explains, “Wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

The philosophy of Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek

I’ll wrap this monologue up here by saying that yes — you’ll likely hear more dystopian points of view about AI (see quotes from Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking) than utopian ones and they’re all important to think deeply about and continue exploring. But, the idea of AI elevating the purpose of human life is still out there with prominent futurists and scientists today. As long as that’s the case, then I think it’s well worth believing in and striving for.

Max Tegmark

Amplifying our own intelligence with AI has the potential to help life flourish like never before, solving our thorniest problems, from disease to climate, justice and poverty.

Max Tegmark, Cosmologist & Professor of Physics at MIT, Founder of the Future of Life Institute

Have thoughts or opinions on the role of designers in the future and the types of skills they’ll need? I’d love to hear what you’re discovering, please leave your comments below!

Jennifer Sukis is a Watson AI Practices Design Principal at IBM based in Austin, TX. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM

Jennifer Sukis

Written by

Design Principal for AI & Machine Learning at IBM. Professor of Advanced Design for AI at the University of Texas. Co-host of AI Zen with Andrew and Jen.

Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM

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