Design Speculations, January 2023: AI's Collective Mindset Takeover and The Great Layoff Wave

Design Speculations is a monthly feature that rounds up the latest news and postulates on what it implies for the future of design.


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We may just be scratching the surface of 2023 as January wraps, but the world has wasted no time in showering us with a flood of news with seemingly huge implications for our near future.

The AI revolution is at your doorstep

It’s difficult to write about the news in January without diving headfirst into the topic of artificial intelligence and how it is infiltrating our lives and workplaces. The second half of 2022 saw the soft launch of Midjourney and DALL-E to the public, and the AI writing phenomenon ChatGPT reached over 1 million users by December 2022 (causing the site to shut down seemingly indefinitely). The surge of interest in this technology even led to Microsoft’s quick acquisition of it, as the company announced at Davos on January 17 that OpenAI would be integrated into Microsoft Azure “soon.” Google CEO Sundar Pichai has declared a “code red” at HQ to mitigate the imminent risk of their search engine’s irrelevance without integration of comparable AI.

It’s too soon to tell what this rapid evolution will mean for designers—at this point, the greatest threat appears to be to assistants and writers (gulp). However, if the last six months to a year are any indication, the idea that artificial intelligence will reorganize logistical areas of industry while leaving knowledge workers completely unscathed is up for debate.

Google search: our robot overlords

There are, conversely, many positive ways to look at this revolution. You don’t have to look far to find news highlighting AI’s potential for co-collaboration and increased efficiency for anyone using it. Healthcare experts are estimating ChatGPT could be instrumental in making healthcare more accessible. A study between Microsoft and PwC concluded with a prediction that responsible use of AI could drop greenhouse gases by 4% before 2030. At the very least, it’s likely to help the process of cleaning out your email inbox easier!

But all the speculation also suggests if you’d like to remain relevant and employable, you’ll need to keep up with the times. “Most of the US economy is knowledge and information work, and that’s who’s going to be most squarely affected by this,” Director of Stanford’s Digital Economy Lab Erik Brynjolfsson recently told CBS Sunday Morning. “I would put people like lawyers right at the top of the list, obviously a lot of copywriters, screenwriters. But I like to use the word affected, not replaced because I think if done right, it’s not going to be AI replacing lawyers; it’s going to be lawyers working with AI replacing lawyers who don’t work with AI.”

As natural advocates for change, designers are well-positioned to take advantage of AI as a partner in their work to advance the field. The question remains: in the future, what will the job of designer entail, and what labor will we hand off to our artificial intelligent companions?

Whatever’s in store for our future, it’s still important to continually interrogate ethics and objectives in the midst of developing these softwares. News of workers in Kenya performing the “mentally scarring” work of flagging harmful content on the Internet to make OpenAI less biased and racist demonstrates the simultaneously crucial and potentially exploitative nature of creating unprejudiced AI. There are also legal repercussions to consider if checks and balances aren’t embedded within the product development process. Plenty of lawsuits have already emerged in the AI space, such as the recent case of Getty Images suing Stable Diffusion for copyright infringement.

AI first and foremost ought to be regarded as a tool for humans to create better work rather than an outright replacement of human labor—and should without question be designed by an extremely diverse committee of practitioners. Because what ultimately shapes the future of this technology is how we, as humans, choose to nurture its growth and advancement.

Some interesting AI stories from January 2023:

ChatGPT: Grading artificial intelligence’s writing” on CBS Sunday Morning

A helpful overview of ChatGPT and the many angles to consider when it comes to its potential effects on society.

How Generative AI Will Supercharge Productivity

James Currier makes a case for the power of generative tech, arguing, “we will finally have tools that will take us from zero to one, making creation easier than ever…The unique eye of the artist will still be valuable. Writers can still edit and refine the AI’s draft copy into their individual voice. They’ll just be better, faster, and more efficient at their jobs, leaving more room for curation.”

This 22-year-old is trying to save us from ChatGPT before it changes writing forever

“‘I think we’re absolutely at an inflection point,’ Tian says. ‘This technology is incredible. I do believe it’s the future. But, at the same time, it’s like we’re opening Pandora’s Box. And we need safeguards to adopt it responsibly.'”

Don’t Ban ChatGPT in Schools. Teach With It. 

In this article for The New York Times, Kevin Roose argues that banning technologies like ChatGPT in schools will not only be extremely difficult, but could be detrimental to students, teachers and the evolution of education.

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The Lack of Women Data Scientists Hurts Artificial Intelligence

Despite the existence of pipeline programs aiming to diversify the field, only 17% of people enrolled in computer and information sciences Ph.D. programs identify as women—what can be done to address this gender gap?

Job stability for many in January felt murky at best

It’s a somewhat strange coincidence this AI revolution coincides with a continuing wave of massive layoffs in tech, adding uncertainty to previously solid roles in the overall work landscape. Reuters reports the job market is still tight and unemployment is low, suggesting layoffs are a “return to normal” after the employment surge in 2021 and 2022. Some companies seem to outright fear an upcoming recession. Stanford Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer even hinted layoffs are an example of “social contagion,” suggesting companies are making decisions out of worry that they misalign with general industry trends. All things considered, there’s already been a surreal up is down feeling to the news about work and commerce in 2023.

Some of the most secure jobs in recent years have been at large, in-house companies, but the recent layoffs at Slack/Salesforce and now over 12,000 job cuts at Google, all of which include layoffs of designers, give shape to what can be expected in the next year.

Will 2023 see startups, small studios, and freelancers picking up on the slack of a reduced in-house workforce? Layoffs hint at this possibility. This news also makes clear there are going to be (and already are) a lot of highly skilled designers, directors, etc. looking for work in the coming months.

This is all perhaps good news for the “small fry” agencies, studios and consultancies looking for work in 2023, but an extra hill for talented people to climb in an already shaky job market.

I’ve seen other interesting hints of what’s possibly to come as a result of these company actions via LinkedIn. Some of those laid off are trying to capture the collective energy of tens of thousands of frustrated, talented individuals by suggesting ex-Googlers, Spotifiers, Meta-ers(?) ought to start their own thing. Identity crises are abound.

There’s also growing discourse about the idea of fighting for unions in the tech space thanks to the cavalier manner in which layoffs took place. Unions are gaining more universal approval within the general population of America as reported by Gallup, up to 71% as of August 2022 compared to 64% prior to the pandemic.

All in all, I think it’s safe to say: watch this space.

Articles worth reading:

Tech Layoffs Shock Young Workers. The Older People? Not So Much.

“‘It seemed like tech companies had so much opportunity,’ said Ms. Chang, 26. ‘If you got a job, you made it. It was a sustainable path.’ Brian Pulliam, on the other hand, brushed off the news that the crypto exchange Coinbase was eliminating his job. Ever since the 48-year-old engineer was laid off from his first job at the video game company Atari in 2003, he said, he has asked himself once a year: ‘If I were laid off, what would I do?'”

Why are there so many tech layoffs, and why should we be worried? Stanford scholar explains

In a larger context, why should we care about layoffs? Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who studies how the workplace affects human health, lays it out simply: “Layoffs kill people, literally.”

Would it really be so bad if AI took our jobs?

A rumination on the future of jobs, and the true value of work we sometimes lose sight of.

Other interesting links this month:

Image source: Jonathan Chng via Unsplash

Recycled Polyester Doesn’t Fix Fast Fashion’s Over-Production Problems

Will 2023 be the year we start to question our current sustainability models in production? Still in the thick of greenwashing, more information is beginning to hit the mainstream that sheds the truth of sustainability practices like the use of recycled polyester—for one, that it’s typically only recyclable once in the case of turning plastic bottles into items like activewear, and two, it’s a source of microplastic shedding into our waterways.

What Gen Z Thinks About Work, College, and the Internet

I’ve just recently discovered Rex Woodbury’s “Digital Native” Substack and this latest send is a fascinating survey of Gen Zers—not to mention it has some pretty mind-boggling factoids sprinkled in there (like the fact that 85% of college students today in 11 years will have jobs that not yet exist).

frog Trends 2023: Collide, Connect, Care

frog’s annual trend report remains an interesting barometer for what to expect in the coming year of design. Highlights in the 2023 report include more on creative AI, the mainstreaming of 3D printing, a technological boom within the healthcare industry, “anti-bland UI” and more.

Source: core77

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