Design Speculations is a monthly feature that rounds up the latest news and postulates on what it implies for the future of design.
The closeout of March means the end of 2023's first quarter, and technological advancements in that span of time have surprised even those with a hand in spawning this revolution. We're already beginning to see how AI is affecting everyday productivity and seeding mistrust mere months after its release, and the 3D printing industry is gaining value in a variety of applications. In other news, the world's leading climate scientists issued a final warning on the race against rising greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures, and a rising interest in apprenticeships over college education is calling into question future relevance of these institutions. Let's dig a little deeper into all of the above:
Last month offered up a swarm of surprising AI developments. OpenAI released the highly anticipated Chat GPT-4; feeling pressure, Google hurriedly introduced their rival AI, Bard, which yielded enough online disappointment to prompt a 7% sink in Google stock. The difference in efficacy between Chat GPT-4 and Bard is shocking, considering that Google has spent over 8 years on Bard's AI underpinnings.
Even newer than chatbots, and a bit more shocking, are AI-driven text-to-video capabilities. (This space is already competitive too; Philipp Tsipman, Founder of CamCorder AI, recently tweeted that 5 advanced generative video models were released within just 7 days.) The example below from Runway, a small AI generative tool development company, is so surprisingly high-quality, one wonders what the cultural and political consequences will be once the technology's perfected—and how quickly that might happen.
Powerful figures are taking notice of this speed, as demonstrated by the recent creation of a contentious petition. On March 29, a group of technologists including Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak signed the petition calling for a "six-month moratorium of the development of advanced A.I. systems," according to Fortune. And camps are already divided about whether this reaction feels like an example of thoughtful recalibration or AI hysteria.
One viral news bit this month was this hypebeast adjacent image of the pope wearing a white puffer jacket, which also happens to be a completely fabricated picture rendered on Midjourney (Image via Reddit)
Concerns about AI are well-encapsulated in the now-viral post of the Pope wearing a white puffer jacket fit for the runway, an image rendered in Midjourney that tricked many on the Internet. James Vincent's Verge piece does a nice job of explaining the "hyper real" aesthetic of this image, and why these examples are so easily fooling us. News sources in March began to postulate on AI's potential to spread disinformation in the 2024 election. Given the research about social media's contributions to political polarization in the United States, it's worth thinking about how AI will feed fuel to this fire.
In lighter news, people are finding some clever ways to take advantage of AI to optimize productivity, and maybe get rich? Take for example, brand designer Jackson Fall's proposal to Chat-GPT to create a business idea that will "generate as much money as possible in the shortest time possible without doing anything illegal."
As reported on March 15, Jackson started a sustainable affiliate company as instructed by AI, has spent $100 on the project, had a cash balance of $1,378.84 thanks to contributions from investors, and a company value of $25,000 thanks to a $500 investment for 2% share of the company. Impressive!
Another emerging story is the growing demand for "prompt engineers," a job that aims to crack the code of expert AI prompt writing. This role is making news due to the fact that it seemingly requires no formal tech degrees and pays upwards of $335,000. But many say due to the rapid fire nature of AI, you shouldn't expect this opportunity to last long. "I wouldn't be so sure that it will continue for a long time. Don't dwell too much on the current state of prompt engineering. It's starting to evolve quite quickly," Mr Adrian Weller, Research Director of Machine Learning at Cambridge recently told Bloomberg.
As for the proposed moratorium, one has to wonder how the government would carry out a hard pause on its proliferation. I've seen so many interesting applications of AI for designers as of late, including a lecture from Case Study Club on how to create a portfolio with the help of AI prompts and a Figma plugin that allows you to use ChatGPT to auto-fill sample content. While some are still skeptical of AI's staying power, the technology is already so seamlessly integrated into daily productivity, it's difficult to imagine how we would hypothetically disentangle ourselves from it.
What is 3D printing's destined future role in our lives? A March piece by The Guardian served as a holistic update on the industry with some predictions therein. While the prediction 10 years ago was that 3D printers would become as common as the household paper printer, this piece demonstrates its future value in factories and large-scale production.
3D printing's biggest use cases as of 2023 are in the medical field, construction, and car manufacturing. In the case of cars, 3D printing consistently delivers parts that are uniquely lightweight yet strong, and aerodynamic. When The Guardian asked car manufacturer Lukas Czinger about his thoughts on 3D printers' future role in the industry, he answered, "in the next five years, you're going to start seeing it on everyday cars…In the next 10 years, you're going to basically have seen it replace most of casting and extruding and stamping."
Customization is another big topic in 3D printing, with potential applications ranging from food to even medicine. Last month, for example, Columbia researchers released a study having to do with the creation of some admittedly unappetizing-looking cheesecakes using 3D printers—but why?
Would you eat this cheesecake?
Jonathan Bludinger, Mechanical Engineer and Postdoctural Fellow at Columbia's School of Engineering mentions in the video above that the experiment is "all about customization and uber-accessibility. I see this more as eventually ending up in your homes one day, like a microwave or a kitchen appliance," with customization elements that allow users of future food-making appliances to control factors like dietary restrictions, calorie intake, and allergens. Perhaps the 3D printer does have a place in the home after all?
The Guardian piece also hinted at an interesting customization example in the case of a future "biopill," a current experiment Hague is working on with GSK and Astra Zeneca to create a single pill containing multiple medicines, bespoke to each patient. "Compliance is a massive issue: you've got all these drugs, people just don't take them," Hague noted. "These are huge potential benefits that people can understand."
While we're clearly still in a deep experimentation zone when it comes to 3D printing, I think it's safe to say digital fabrication is reaching well beyond its original applications with interesting potential ahead.
Image credit: NASA via Unsplash
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a faction of the world's leading climate scientists, delivered an urgent message last month: get to work on reducing emissions now, or it may be too late. The group emphasizes in their recently released sixth assessment report that if we are to maintain hope about keeping our global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must work on rapidly reducing emissions immediately. As reported by The Guardian, Chair of the IPCC Hoesung Lee warns, "This synthesis report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a livable sustainable future for all."
The IPCC delivers an urgent call for every industry to tackle climate change now (side note, this video feels like a hint that Oscar-winning "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once" is currently at its cultural peak) (Video credit, The Guardian)
UN Secretary General António Guterres added if we are able to fast-track solutions to reduce emissions by 2040 rather than the 2050 goal outlined in the UN's Net Zero Coalition Proposition, we still have a fighting chance of avoiding the worst. "The climate timebomb is ticking. But today's report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate timebomb. It is a survival guide for humanity. As it shows, the 1.5C limit is achievable," Guterres notes.
As design evolves from a simple process to bring physical objects to production into a rubric for designing complex systems and strategies, it makes one wonder: Designers already do such a fantastic job of bringing designs to the market within a reasonable timeline. Can we also utilize these powerful fast-fail approaches to turning around greenhouse gas emissions?
A think piece at Fast Company on climate by Balena Science CEO David Roubach is an interesting one in that it demonstrates a more progressive mindset around product development. Balena, a material science company, is developing materials meant to decompose not in decades, but mere weeks under proper composting processes. Their prototype for a sandal made of dirt that can fully break down under a quick timeline is impressively sturdy and modern looking.
Balena's sandals can decompose in a matter of weeks in compost (Image credit: Balena Science via Facebook)
In many ways, this mindset shift would require careful revisions of process, but also a product's final output. Materials are a crucial component of design's sustainability strategy, but perhaps even more important is the consideration of product lifecycle and how we deal with a product's refuse.
Embracing this perspective calls to mind interesting aesthetic directions. Would a shift to more circular processes mean a refusal of color in products that are often created using toxic synthetic dyes, and a future more muted in tone? Examples like Balena's sandals show a future world through the lens of design that can look both modern and earthly—imagine less scratchy hemp clothing, and more science-supported, 100% compostable, non-toxic polymers you would never know can decompose back into dirt and enrich our soil. It's a fun future to imagine, and it's clear development is well on its way.
Where is your power in this equation? It could begin with questioning your processes and quantifying the impact your design decisions make on the environment. There are many ways technology can aid in this process. There are interesting new startups beginning to offer up a way to evaluate production processes, like Planet FWD, a data company that helps consumer product companies understand their impact and create more regenerative production processes. There are growing consultancies you can partner with to create a design plan for your business with sustainability in mind, such as PROWL and Standard Deviation. Further educate yourself on the state of climate today by growing your reading list, and tap into communities talking about these issues, such as the Work on Climate Slack group.
Some young people are foregoing the college route for more specialized apprenticeships to reduce the risk of unemployment (Image credit: Mizuno K via Pexels)
Are young people losing interest in higher education? A piece by the Wall Street Journal published in March explores the trend among Gen-Z of applying for apprenticeships as an alternative to traditional college programs. According to the report, over the past decade, college enrollment reduced by 15% while apprenticeship has gone up 50%, with some programs as competitive as Ivy League universities. It's clear Gen-Z is fed up with the debt accrued earning a college degree in addition to the uncertainty of employment post-graduation.
The Wall Street Journal piece reports employers are noticing the knowledge college graduates gain through university courses aren't matching up with demands of roles—as a result, some employers are eliminating requirements of college degrees from job descriptions entirely. The research hints that demand in the job market is putting pressure on educational institutions to provide more specialized programs to increase the likelihood of students' future employment. Pair that with the fact that recent research suggests AI threatens the stability of a wide variety of white-collar jobs, and you've got a pressure cooker of uncertainties around the future of work.
There is, of course, a risk to an immediate switch to the mentality of specialized focus gained through something like an apprenticeship over general education. Stanford University economist Eric A. Hanushek argues university's variety in courses "makes people more adaptable and able to learn new skills that show up later when the economy changes," and that apprenticeships are in the end likely most beneficial to companies.
All things considered, how do we save the college system given these growing opinions? What of the college institution is worth saving, and what deserves to be tossed? Given the news, I'm predicting a huge cry for more applicable courses to real life. In the larger realm of education, one story picking up steam is the popularity of TikTok-focused marketing courses that teach students how to key into what makes content potentially viral. In design, this desire for something more tailored to professional life is well-demonstrated by the popularity of alternative design programs like Google's UX Certification program, Advanced Design and Useful School.
There will likely be a growing demand for courses to match the technological landscape, and further integration of AI programs into educational courses—and universities risk irrelevance if they fail to respond to this need. In a recent episode of the Often Unexpectedly design podcast about 'why design schools suck', co-host Gookul Beeda put it best when he says, "There's a gap between industry [needs] and professionals [skills]. And if the academic space is not filling it, the only other people who can do it are people in the industry."
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reality check response: AI is the current scam buzzword for funding generation, every corporation in the world is still pretending climate change isn't real, and nobody can afford to go to college.
Oh right, missed 3D printing. Vastly energy inefficient and slow compared to virtually any other mature manufacturing process, and limited to processes which require it. Looks cool though.