Anyone who knows me will be pretty aware by now that I’m fascinated by the development of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and technology which analyses and exploits our deepest thoughts and emotions. I host the Creative Intelligence podcast, in which I have conversations with senior figures and innovators in the field about their research, as I try to draw together a disparate handful of threads to weave into a single narrative strand to take me through how all of this technology has grown, how we as humans need to interact with and shape it, and how important it is that we use the results of our collective labors to make our lives more fulfilling, not simply to run more efficiently or profitably.
AI is a remarkable beast. I guess that people outside the scientific community, laypeople and casual observers, think it’s just another convenient technological advance, like Alexa or the iPhone. It really isn’t. For a start, artificial intelligence isn’t a single thing. It’s not even a process. AI is a philosophy, a whole infrastructure of design and hard science; you might even call it a new way of looking at the world. It offers us a future in which machines, computers, microchips, software are not just our tools or servants to be exploited: if we do it right, they can be our partners.
The old paradigm was that humans design machines to do something that we had previously done, but to do it better – or to do something that we couldn’t do. An example of the former would be the mechanized production line of the kind pioneered by Henry Ford. He was still making cars, like everybody else in the automotive industry. He wasn’t making a new kind of car. But he was doing it so much more quickly and efficiently than his competitors that it gave him a commercial edge. The latter is epitomised, maybe, by medical imaging equipment, CAT scans, ultrasound, X-rays. The way they look through our outward carapace and see the physiology beneath is something that the human eye simply can’t do. It doesn’t have the power or the capability. So, in that sense, that kind of scientific advance has expanded our horizons.
AI is different again. AI works with us; the technology is created and programmed by us, of course, and that remains a fundamental limitation which we always have to bear in mind – but that’s just the starting point. With ‘old’ technology, you invented something, you produced it, and there it was. Boom. Someone might come along and make a better one, steal a march on you. But it was the same process again. With AI, it starts from our human algorithms and programs, but it’s adaptive and responsive. It works with us, it complements us, and it’s starting to learn from us. We’re going to have to debate much more seriously in the future what constitutes ‘consciousness’, but I tell you this: the gap between human and machine is going to get smaller, fast. And this isn’t science fiction. This is happening right now.
So how does AI inspire us? How does it fuel our creativity? We tend to think of technology, of machines, as the very opposite of art, of creativity, or the esthetic sensibility. But AI isn’t like that. It puts a hand on ours as we hold the brush, or the pen, or the cutting shears. It allows us the think in new ways, to make connections we would never have made before, between apparently disparate things. One of my guests on Creative Intelligence, Richie Manu from Central St Martin’s in London, described this forging of new connections, of
rewiring the way we think, as our “curiosity bandwidth”. The potential outcomes are as wide as our minds can make them. For example, CuteCircuit, the London-based fashion house, produced a little black dress made of graphene, which could monitor, interpret and respond to the way the wearer breathes: more Samantha in Her than Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So I believe that AI allows us to expand our creativity, for sure. But more important than that, I think it allows us to reimagine what our creativity can really be. Designing a dress isn’t just a good eye and the ability to cut fabric skilfully anymore, it’s also advanced and empathetic data collection, applied science and (forgive the pun) cutting-edge nanotechnology. And you can call me a dreamer, and many do, but I think that’s awesome.
It’s a little bit easier to understand how AI can help businesses grow and strengthen their appeal to customers. Retail is, in large part, an emotional process. There are no doubt some purchasing decisions which are ruthlessly commercial and efficient: an office manager buying printer cartridges, or a road builder buying aggregate. These processes probably don’t have much room for choice, influence, esthetic quality, sentiment. But think about so many other sectors. Fashion, we’ve talked about. But what about art? Automobiles? Food? Vacations? All of these are emotionally-driven buying scenarios, and what AI can do, or what it can help us to do, is understand the decision-making, questions and formulae that go through people’s minds. Who buys a product? What’s the demographic? Or rather, what are the demographics? Which of the measurable qualities of a given group of people – age, socio-economic class, educational background, race – are important when a purchasing decision is made? What do people think?
AI can help us understand that. It can map human emotions and interpret them, allowing a retailer to produce the most comfortable and enriching consumer interfaces. If you get that right, then of course your market share will increase. The key to sales is giving the customer what they want, or even anticipating their needs, and the more information producers and vendors can collect, the quicker and more thoroughly it can be processed and understood, the more perfectly you will bring what you have to sell into alignment with what someone else wants to buy. The key to unlock commercial nirvana.
So I think this is really exciting. When we do it right, AI can be a benign force, a helping hand rather than a forceful restraint, helping us to do what we want to do, not telling us to do what we ought to do. It’s complicated, and multilayered, and interdisciplinary, and people who are really leading from the front are few and far between. But their ideas will spread. Once the revolutionary is proved efficacious, it becomes the commonplace, and the essential. I think to myself, what a wonderful world.