Hawking Says AI Will Be the End of Us All. Maybe It's Starting with the Web Designers?
I'd like to be honest from the outset, and admit I've been aware that Artificial Intelligence is being touted as the future of web design for a while, thanks largely to the fascinating crowd funding site of an organisation called The Grid, which is currently raising millions of dollars in order to create, and I'm quoting here: 'AI websites that design themselves.'
However, I've been a tiny bit hesitant about raising the issue here, lest my friends and colleagues think that I really am a Mad Woman. "Websites that design themselves, Jess? Perhaps you've been overdoing it a bit."
And then, Professor Stephen Hawking recently came right out and said what fans of the Terminator film franchise have always suspected, telling the BBC: "Once humans develop Artificial Intelligence, it would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate…the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
So if the great Stephen Hawking can make sweeping pronouncements like that, I felt, perhaps I can raise the question of whether AI could be used to design more functional and user-friendly websites.
Can AI Really Replicate A Designer's Intuition?
The premise of The Grid's offering, as I understand it, is that rather than fiddling with a Wordpress template, in the future people will simply upload their content, including images and videos, to The Grid, which will analyse it, then design a website that shows it to best effect, even stopping along the way to give the most aesthetically pleasing crop to your photos.
My first question then, has to be: Could AI actually acquire such intuitive aesthetic skills? After all, while there are some rules to cropping images, I know for a fact that a talented designer's intuition will invariably find a better crop than that of someone who has read any number of books about photography.
Yet The Grid promise even more than that. They are suggesting that websites built with their promised system will learn from the way each user interacts with them, and constantly refine and adapt themselves by testing 'thousands of subtle variations to find the one that works best.' All of which brings me to my next question.
Is AI Going To Destroy the Last Vestiges of Online Privacy?
I know I'm not alone in disliking 'targeted ads' that are based on the contents of my email inbox. First off, it's an invasion of privacy, and secondly, they're often pretty inaccurate: as I will often receive emails about a subject I have no personal interest in, then start to see ads based on the same subject being served on random websites. All of which, besides being intrusive and annoying, demonstrates that even the mighty Google's automated processing algorithms are basically dumber than a bag of rocks.
Even as I write this piece, Facebook has just chipped away at the last vestiges of privacy on its network by announcing the development of an AI Assistant that will 'mediate' user interactions and uploads. Think of it as an electronic mate who sits over your shoulder late at night and says: "Come on Dave, you've had a few drinks; don't share the 1D video on your Facebook wall. And lose the heart-shaped emoticons while you're at it."
So, following my original question of whether AI really can design websites (which we'll find the answer to when The Grid launches for real in late Spring of 2015), a more apposite question seems to be: Is it a good thing to entrust privacy issues and intuitive processes to machine intelligence?
While the ability to make websites interactive rather than merely responsive sounds great in theory, I really do have my doubts. Maybe websites designed by The Gridwill one day track my IP address and say to themselves: "Ah, it's Jess Ellis from Proctor + Stevenson. She never looks below the fold. Total scrolling disability, poor kid. Better bin the pretty images and put the proposition from today's Campaign front and centre."
As an aside, The Grid’s initial AI concept is very much aimed at the DIY market, not commercial organisations. So does all this mean that in future our professional designers will be expected to create multiple, intuitive layouts for the sort of two million word, 2000 page websites with four integrations into 3rd party business systems that we routinely create?
Naturally, while such in-depth interactivity would be a nightmare for designers, it makes an enticing prospect for marketers, at least on the surface. The problem is, however, that even I don't know what I want from a website until I've been there and browsed it. And my needs and wants change from day to day anyway. After all, I'm a human being, not a machine.
So while I'd love to hear your thoughts on the whole notion of AI as website designer and Internet nanny - and I wish The Grid well with their ambitious plans - I personally don't think that our esteemed human web designers have to start making other career plans just yet.
This blog post was originally published on LinkedIn's Pulse.