Will we allow machines to take over creativity?
The relationship between machines and creativity has been a popular discourse across design disciplines in the last decade. An increasing number of ‘artist-designer-makers’ have embraced the possibilities offered by new technologies – examples being rapid-prototyping and open-source platforms – that often propose unexpected and innovative outcomes. We can now produce new work that was previously unviable or impossible to make by hand.
Over the past two decades, the tools for the production of digital culture have become more refined, common, accessible and cheaper. Additionally, a new public has emerged who are ready to embrace edgy products. ‘Digicrafts’ is a term that refers to work that looks at digital technologies with an artisanal approach, resulting in a constant hybridising of traditional and innovative fabrication techniques. We have seen corner shops turn into ‘fablabs’, suddenly enabling the masses to 3D-print their own bespoke designs. Icons such as Zaha Hadid and Iris Van Herpen have incorporated technology as the very essence of their signature style and creative ethos, defining new standards for their respective industries.
Exhibitions in major museums worldwide and main design publishers have widely covered the current relationship between technology and craftsmanship. For instance, the recently concluded MANUS x MACHINA: Fashion in the Age of Technology exhibition at New York's MET Museum enjoyed vast success over 2016, surpassing their 660,000 visitors for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty in 2011. The show featured a number of garments that challenge the disparity we generally consider to exist between handmade and machine-made goods - the former suggesting value, luxury and skilled time-consuming labour; the latter implying mediocrity, replication, progress and speed efficiency. In the words of the curator Andrew Bolton, the show, "tries to debunk some mythologies", encouraging visitors to consider a fresher perspective where hand-crafts and technology are on the same level – equally capable, separated or combined, to produce uniqueness and beauty.
Without a doubt, the future is here. Any debate suggesting an intrinsic value difference between products made by hand using centuries-old techniques against those crafted by machines with the latest software, sounds dated and no longer relevant within the design world. Technologies known as GRIN - Genetics, Robotics, Information technology and Nanotechnology - constitute the global model in which design operates and will evolve over the next few decades. The frontiers of innovation and creativity are now on a completely different scale.
Are we prepared to embrace them?
Despite the global design community expressing excitement and bursts of productivity after the digital revolution of rapid-prototyping and data-visualization, there is a lull (if not a reluctance) in taking the next step and embracing edgier territories of technological advancement. It is as if there is a resistance to more complex and cutting-edge technologies, such as robotics and A.I.
New, complex and fairly unknown things always carry a sense of danger. Yet, that is often the space where the next design challenges and opportunities exist. It is unsaid that traditional methods and proven technologies such as good, old scalpels and modelling software can be trusted. But we do not seem completely and mentally prepared to design a robot just yet; a project such as this could perhaps involve control management issues, if not a complete A.I. takeover.
The future appears to hold only two options; either we will dictate the machines actions, or they will dictate ours. Either way, the potential outcome is as terrifying as it is thrilling – especially for creative minds.
The best design contributions are those that bring society and technology closer without limiting the application of emerging technologies to the production of ‘new crafts’. Future designers have the option to embrace their social role by collaborating and contributing to the engineering of robotics with a human-centred approach; influencing technological advancement in a manner that keeps the focus on the needs of mankind – not a given in a future with more machines than humans!