Despite AI, Humans Must Drive Future Mobility Design

Despite AI, Humans Must Drive Future Mobility Design

  • Numerous algorithm-driven creative tools now have the capability to help designers in their role of generating creative visual ideas.
  • But if artificial intelligence can take the human out of the creative process, this is where a line in the sand must be drawn, writes author Paul Snyder.
  • Algorithms can scour all the information available in the world, but they don’t know what to do with it until we provide direction to some desired outcome.

    In 2015, when I started as chair of the Transportation Design Department at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, my motivation for accepting the role was the burgeoning excitement around autonomous vehicles and the massive disruption that would bring to the automotive industry. To me this offered immense and unimagined possibilities for young CCS graduates to be a part of and, in time, to even lead a new transportation revolution into the 21st century.

    While all this has been taking a lot longer than many predicted, it now seems to be plausibly on the horizon, with Zoox, Waymo, and Cavnue right here in Detroit getting closer to broad public testing. Soon after they are validated, we’ll likely also have a multitude of luxury vehicles sporting the same tech for personal ownership.

    ccs student dexter jay pomilban design or for calty toyota

    CCS student Dexter Jay Pomilban’s Gazoo Roadster project for Calty-Toyota.

    College for Creative Studies

    However, while the notion of autonomous vehicles is indeed exciting (or terrifying), it is the artificial intelligence technology underpinning this mobility revolution that has even more potential to disrupt our daily way of life—and the jobs of those engineering and designing the vehicles we enjoy.

    Over the course of the last several months, numerous algorithm-driven creative tools have been introduced that have the capability to help designers in their role of generating creative visual ideas, in a short amount of time. This goes well beyond computational modeling software that is still complex to operate, as there is no coding necessary to produce outcomes. You simply type—or if you prefer, to speak—what you are looking for and let AI do the rest. Now, the results are still very low-fidelity and require a lot of human intervention, but one can easily see where this is going.

    ccs student william dubois autonomous pod design for zoox

    CCS student William Dubois’ autonomous pod design for Zoox.

    College for Creative Studies

    As creatives and educators at CCS, I believe we are in service to project an ethos of skill mastery, humanism, and basic economics. We pride ourselves on our job placement record this year at 78% of 2022 May graduates before the summer is even over, in a time when the ROI for many college students in the US is far from certain. Concurrently, as AI continues to rapidly evolve, it is unknown what technologies powering disruption in various markets will be in service to future designers in 2050, or take their place. I’m no expert on machine learning or cybernetics, but I am told the jobs most in danger from AI are the ones that require the processing of existing information.

    For example, AI could be better than a doctor at diagnosing sickness because theoretically it would have the latest information on illnesses and how to treat them, but there is no similar substitute for a human when it comes to caregiving, or consoling a distraught patient.

    mobile beehive designed by student seokbin hong for american chemistry council

    Mobile beehive designed by student Seokbin Hong for American Chemistry Council.

    College for Creative Studies

    So perhaps areas like marketing professions have more to lose than we designers do. AI could quickly identify sales fluctuations, where it’s happening, by which companies, and perhaps why, but then someone must filter that information toward the next goal. Who that would be—MBA or a designer—is open to debate. So perhaps none of our jobs is ultimately safe, but I would argue that human creative genius is the last frontier.

    As automotive designers it is typical if not implicitly required that we are also futurists. Imagining future products and experiences is what we do. And so it is by default that designers are also typically part of the early adopters as new technologies arise. The advance of technology enables what we envision, and in many cases, we are years ahead of our ideas’ technical feasibility. So it’s a relief when the enabling tech finally does arrive. Then, we mostly embrace it and try to direct it into the service of making our lives easier and the world a better place. Assuming that we can take the human out of the process, however, is where I draw the line in the sand.

    davis kunselman's design concept for zoox rolls on three spheres

    Davis Kunselman’s design concept for Zoox rolls on three spheres.

    College for Creative Studies

    Humans are creative animals, and making things special for ourselves and our tribe is intrinsic to who we are as a species. What we call art making and design is fundamentally the same as baking a cake for your mother’s birthday. If AI were to help us to envisage a cake design, that’s great.

    But if our creative genius can be assigned to an algorithm (the elephant in the room), then maybe we are not losing anything by passing on that level of “help”? The problem is AI technology is coming and will continue to advance, pose these questions, and portend these consequences whether we are ready, or not.

    Therefore, we must carefully lead the way in exploring the value and potential of these new tools—if not only that we understand them and let them serve our ends, to ultimately benefit humanity.

    For it is not the artificial intelligence that poses the real challenge. The real problem in artificial intelligence is the level of power it provides to those who would use it to nefarious ends. Or those who would cut corners in the name of efficiencies.

    students in virtual reality lab at ccs

    Students in virtual-reality lab at CCS.

    Kelley O’Neill/College for Creative Studies

    I think it unlikely artificial intelligence will ever achieve human consciousness in the sense of what we think of as a singularity in dystopian science fiction stories (though we may need to become cyborgs at some point just to process the amount of information available to us). The essential component of us that defines our humanity is our consciousness of ourselves and others. Consciousness makes us thoughtful about our loved ones, and it triggers mundane acts of kindness, like tipping the driver or concierge.

    As we are all conscious humans, I don’t think anyone is rooting for AI to win this battle, as if it’s some epic story of competition or war against robots. But we are designing the robots now, so it’s incumbent on all of us to center our focus around humanism. We are at a renaissance inflection point, and leveraging this new technology will have as significant an impact on us as the Sistine Chapel had on storytelling and the discovery of gravity lead us to the H-bomb. Luckily, we’ve learned a lot since then.

    above the clouds with yung lun fu's design for karma

    Above the clouds with Young Lun Fu’s “Karma Aurora,” a space shuttle concept.

    College for Creative Studies

    In practical terms, I do think algorithms can be very useful in the rapid iteration of ideas for consideration, depending on who is defining the parameters of intent. But for now, AI is mostly coming up with new combinations of things that already exist. Could an algorithm have come up with the delightful idea of Jeep’s “easter eggs” (Google it) hidden in places that surprise and delight us but have no other function? Or even the simple but ingenious flip-down step in an F-150 tailgate?

    Algorithms can scour all the information available in the world, but they don’t know what to do with it until we provide direction to some desired outcome. And even then, the results are either derivative or antiseptic, in my opinion. Algorithms can beat us at chess, but we invented the game and its rules. Algorithms can now mimic any artist, but will they someday be able to create their own paintings and sculptures?

    After eight years of introducing transportation design students to a multitude of new ideas about mobility and design process technology, I continue embracing such advancements, and leveraging their power to the betterment of the human condition. At the same time, I will continue to advocate for and indeed require our design students to learn that most basic, archaic, and fundamental skill of drawing from their imaginations.

    paul snyder leads the transportation design department at ccs

    Paul Snyder leads the Transportation Design Department at CCS.

    College for Creative Studies

    Where a business-only leader might ask AI for cost effective and entertaining ways to improve customer satisfaction, designers armed with their education in the humanities might say, “Let’s prioritize mobility opportunities for seniors, inclusive of under-serviced communities,” and I’ll wager the results may improve everyone’s lives. Computers are smart—often smarter than humans—but they don’t know anything about the human condition: what makes us content, fulfilled, angry, or disappointed. That’s where we come in as living breathing, educated designers, who pay attention to problems that need solving and dream of solutions.

    A 1987 CCS graduate, Paul Snyder’s experience spans four continents, working on exterior and interior designs at Ford, Lincoln, Renault, Honda, and Acura. Since 2015, he has led the Transportation Design Department at CCS.

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