Ever since humans invented technology, those new developments came along with fears about the unknown consequences of their impact. Consistently, one of those fears has been whether technology would replace humans in certain places.
A great example was last month’s Legal Service Jam, where I was lucky to mentor a group of legal workers in the adoption of service design tools to re-invent their profession. I couldn’t help but notice a certain level of anxiety around the topic of professional uncertainty in the face of technological advancement. Many of us were there that day to think about how technology could disrupt a stereotypically old-fashioned industry, but many raised concerns: Are we not working towards replacing ourselves?
Naturally, change is inevitable and those who realize this and adapt to it early enough, will reap the rewards. But what happens when technology reaches the level of Artificial Intelligence superior to humans, when it becomes able to innovate and create new technology on its own? Will it replace its creators?
Last week, the Bio Agency hosted the latest edition of UX Crunch, Europe’s biggest UX networking event. A set of inspired talks sparked a discussion about technology and the importance of human-centred design. Eventually, the inevitable happened: The man in the last row raised his hand and asked: “With the rise of AI, is the profession of the UX designer not becoming obsolete?”
My natural impulse was to dismiss this as an unnecessary question with an obvious answer, but I also felt that something about the general idea of technology replacing humans is different when it comes to the very people that crafted it. After all, user experience designers play an important role in the creation of technology as they define people’s interactions with it.
Recently, I met with the team of a young technology startup. Their product was like a catalog of buzzwords: big data, deep learning, artificial intelligence — it was all there. As we enjoyed some fruit infused water and discussed their project, I realized that they experienced an increasingly common problem: There were so many possibilities in which data to use and what to do with it, and they wanted to do it all at the same time. However, they could not provide me with a succinct answer to some of the all important questions of human centred design: “What is the problem you are trying to solve, and who’s problem is it?”
This made me consider how the way we innovate has changed over time: When faced with a certain problem, people would put their heads together and try to come up with a few possible solutions or, more commonly, a solution. They would think about what they want to achieve, and try to make it possible. Today, we are faced with a new problem, one that has never existed before just like this: An overabundance of possibilities. It has become almost too easy to create new technology, which is precisely why UX Design matters now more than ever. We need to intelligently choose possibilities and eliminate others until we are only left with what is actually relevant, required and meaningful. Today, UX designers need to take on the role of experience curators. Could an artificial intelligence understand the complexity of our lives and make the right choices when it comes to the question of which products to create?
Let’s look at the design process. On one had, one could argue that UX design starts with analyzing data. User data plays an important role in the process, and yes, computers certainly have the ability to process a whole lot more of that than human designers do. Wouldn’t they be able to analyse all the clicks, and taps, and scrolls, and shares, and tell me how to build a better product? Well, no, because that is only one half of the picture. A computer might be able to identify what is wrong, but not why. That requires an inquiry in, and understanding of, emotional responses. For all humans are emotional beings with decisions founded mostly in emotions. Admittedly, there are some serious attempts happening in making machines understand facial expressions or tonality in speech. As of now however, those attempts remain experimental. Let’s assume that computers will soon be able to read our emotions, does that mean they will be able to understand connections between emotional feedback and subsequent actions?
Looking at the profession itself, it stands out in how young it is and how quickly it is evolving. Just look at your fellow UXers: Hardly any have studied User Experience in an academic context. Most come from adjacent, or even entirely different backgrounds, purely because UX just hasn’t been around for that long as a field of study; and in its short history, it has never remained the same for long. For part of the UX designers fundamentals is about constantly adapting to their environment, setting new rules, standards and processes, and reinventing how they do their job in response to the problem at hand. There seems to be an inherent ability, even desire, to constantly change. On UX-Radio’s episode Optimize for Joy, Christina Wodtke, author of the bookInformation Architecture and founding president of the Information Architecture Institute, put it like this:
“I don’t think we ever stop designing once we start designing, but the things we make change as our interests wander around.”
Few professions celebrate adaptation to changing circumstances just like User Experience Design.
So will human UXers as they exist today one day be replaced by digital counterparts? Maybe. Looking at the pace of technological advancement, you can’t rule it out. However, when this happens there will be something else that requires designing.
Have you ever thought about being replaced by a machine? Please share your thoughts in the comments.