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Will Tomorrow's World Still Need Designers?

Johanna Blakley

robot.jpgAt Davos this year, four luminaries in the world of design were asked to predict what the future of design will be. The themes that arose from this discussion seemed to coalesce into two distinct categories that I'd venture to call "internal" and "external." On the one hand, the speakers emphasized the importance of privacy and personal convenience - a degree of customization we've not seen before, that will first be available, as usual, to the world's wealthiest 10%. Designers will create ingenious objects with hidden multifunctionality, devices that, for one reason or another, cloak what they can really do. We'll also see designers pressed to find ways to better protect trade secrets and the valued expertise of the genius creator - in other words, designers will be designing objects that actually enhance their own professional lives and buttress their privileged position in society.

This vision of a rather elitest future of design was counterbalanced by a set of notions that implied a very different path for the world's creative future - one that many designers with an instinct for self-preservation may treat with some dismay. On this end of the prediction spectrum I noticed a concentration on the external - an emphasis on transparency and simplicity and social responsibility. A belief that design that communicates its utility to the poorest 90% of the world will take precedence, and that mass design collaborations will serve a vaster public than professional designers have ever reached. This future of design would be world-changing and would mark a new direction for the practice of design . . . one that might not require designers.

Much has been made of the consequences of democratizing design. Already, the designer's responsibility has shifted from creating objects and experiences to creating the conditions for innovation - putting into the hands of the masses the tools to make their own designs. However, the threat to the livelihood of designers may well go beyond packs of online amateurs.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that $1,000 worth of computation in the 2020s will be 1,000 times more powerful than the human brain. The result? By 2020, greatly extended human longevity (and a cure for the common cold, thank God); by 2030, nanobots that can repair our bodies on the fly; by 2040, machine back-ups of human memories. In the same timeframe, we'll spend less time in front of computers and more time inside of them, working and playing in virtual worlds.

And what comes along with all this amazing progress? A fear that we won't be able to stay ahead of the game. As countless movies and sci-fi stories have told us, the terrorists could use this technology against us or the powerful computers that we've created could take over. While some critics have claimed that this is basically "the Rapture for nerds," Kurzweil - whose fan club includes Bill Gates, Marvin Minsky, and folks at the National Institute of Health - expects that by 2045, non-biological intelligence will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today. Stanford's Paul Saffo has asked, will this super intelligence treat us like pets or like food?

This presents an obvious quandry to designers, who may be regarded as the agents of our salvation or our destruction when "the Singularity" (or the nerdocalypse) arrives. As Mary Shelley so brilliantly depicted in Frankenstein, playing God can have tremendous costs. If we're the first species to take over our own evolution, will designers live like Gods or be chronically unemployed?

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