machines as artisans


From an efficiency standpoint, automation and machines will render artisan work progressively obsolete. If we are overcome by a wave of severe ‘crafts nostalgia’, we can always go back to handwork, but to have the option of greater efficiency sounds like a step in the right direction for mankind.

What happens however, when ‘intellectual work’ is also rendered obsolete? Algorithms are becoming increasingly sophisticated and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is a widely explored field of research. Are we about be stuck in a paradox of telling machines what to do, so that they can tell us what to do?

Facebook’s recent incident demonstrates this. The social media platform has become the world's largest distributor of news. Its Trending news module was initially curated by a human workforce in charge of editing popular news for Facebook users. Based on accusations from users of potentially biased news (as well as plans to scale the service globally), Facebook immediately fired the team in late August - moving onto a predominantly algorithm-driven service. In the following days however, the algorithm’s moderation feature failed and the system published potentially offensive and false stories - which were then removed. Despite the unpleasant situation, Facebook declared that the algorithm had been learning from the dismissed human team and would still progressively move towards a fully automated news service.


Designer Charlotte Normoen tackles the delicate topic of automation as applied to craftsmanship in her project humanMADE, "The project aims to go beyond the practical aspect of technological unemployment and to ask what happens if a robot takes on the role of an artisan." Over the next couple of decades, increasing shares of the labour market could be automated. Is it possible to automate any and all human skills and abilities?

Charlotte Normoen - HumanMADE. Photo Credit: Tom Mannion

Charlotte Normoen - HumanMADE. Photo Credit: Tom Mannion

"Most experts agree that there are certain human qualities - like creativity, intuition and interpersonal skills - that would be difficult to recreate in a machine and therefore, jobs that require such skills would seemingly be safe from automation."

- Charlotte Normoen


However, when it comes to design, what would automation mean for authorship? In what ways can design and A.I. coexist?

Normoen’s video seeks to encourage the debate surrounding ownership, man and machine, "By using machine-learning and a genetic algorithm I have created a robot designer that generates new pottery designs. An industrial robot arm throws the designs on a pottery wheel using a silicon human 'finger', thereby eliminating the need for the 'human touch'. The human's role in the production is demoted to menial tasks such as preparing and carrying clay and looking after the machines."