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Designing AI for Us - The Humans Part I

Samantha Starmer, VP Global Digital Experiences at Ralph Lauren discusses artificial intelligence design in the first installment of a three-part series. 

Samantha Starmer

AI is Scary…
AI is Brilliant…
AI is Transformational…

“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn't work out.” – Elon Musk

There is a lot of buzz about Artificial Intelligence right now - much of it driven by media created images we have internalized about robots and the possibility that they will run amok. Current hit TV shows like Westworld and Humans aren’t helping this perception. We tend to anthropomorphize AI, adding physicality, independent action, emotions and even free will. And given our limited experience of robots, many of us envision a world with them as being black and white, good or evil. We tend to have limited context that often favors more helpful images such as Rosie the maid from the Jetsons or scary images like the Terminator. These robot driven fantasies provide us a mental model for trying to understand a transformation we are still in the infancy of experiencing.

We tend to anthropomorphize AI, adding physicality, independent action, emotions and even free will.

To look at AI more clearly and with more realistic and focused expectations, we need to stop focusing on robots. As Tim Urban states in his illuminating AI primer, “a robot is a container for AI, sometimes mimicking the human form, sometimes not—but the AI itself is the computer inside the robot. AI is the brain, and the robot is its body—if it even has a body.” A robot driven by an AI brain may have more easily imagined capabilities, but in order to grasp how AI could help or hurt us and thus best manage the outcomes, we are better off by increasing our understanding of AI’s bodiless potential and its impact on humans.

Frankly though, this is more difficult than one might think. Are the more standard and informed definitions like Merriam Webster’s “a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers” any better? Do they help us understand how AI will transform our lives? I’m not sure. A judicious and balanced understanding of AI will require not only critical thinking about what it is and how it works, but also increased exposure to the experiences and situations it enables. We will need to be in it to better understand it.

Unless we start being thoughtful and transparent about the benefits and risks of AI, we could undermine progress that will truly benefit humans.

Even if we can truly understand AI and its impact, it won’t necessarily negate the fear. When Stephen Hawking says that AI could end the human race, and Elon Musk likens it to summoning a demon, it is no wonder that so much of the AI chatter is characterized by alarm. At this point in time however, many of these anxieties are pure speculation, and unless we start being thoughtful and transparent about the benefits and risks of AI, we could undermine progress that will truly benefit humans.

The nonprofit think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation puts it well: “When it comes to artificial intelligence, myths are spreading faster than the technology itself is advancing. Left unchecked, these myths could inspire fears that undermine the technology’s progress, which would be to the detriment of economic growth and social progress.”


As a human race we are good at spinning up myths about progress. Throughout history we have been concerned about the impact of technological advances on our lives and our very nature of being human. In the 19th century the transformation of the printing industry via the printing press drove an intense fear among many that the technology had an “insidious inclination to “take over” must be rigorously held in check.” The written word itself was feared by Socrates, saying it would “create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories.”

So we need to be honest about this natural inclination to allow us the objectivity to ask the right questions. Isn’t any kind of technology really meant to be a tool to help humans? Optimally to supplement and improve versus replace our abilities? It’s helpful to remember that “every transformative tool that humans have created — from the wheel to the steam engine or the microprocessor — has augmented human capabilities.”

We need to start by focusing on how AI can help us humans.

Considering the possibilities for augmenting our skills, particularly in areas more difficult or inefficient for people, seems to be the right way to start understanding AI more clearly. We need to start by focusing on how AI can help us humans. Because we need help! I’m certain that I’m not the only one who generally feels overwhelmed by the ever increasing amount of data not just available to us every day and every minute, but the data we are expected to thoughtfully use and incorporate into action.

The future of AI is no longer coming, it’s here. We think we have seen amazing increases to the speed of computing and general technology progress over the last 20 years? Experts say we ain’t seen nothing yet. I’ve been speaking and teaching on topics related to digital innovation for over 10 years. Four years ago I said that digital and physical are colliding. I believe that collision has happened and that there is increasingly no distinction between online and offline.

Not that long ago many thought leaders, experts and executives disregarded the internet as a mostly unusable fad. We should use this as a lesson and a reminder that it is past time for us to figure out how to best manage AI and thoughtfully use it to our advantage. As Andrew Ng, Chief Scientist at Chinese search giant Baidu puts it: “In the past a lot of S&P 500 CEOs wished they had started thinking sooner than they did about their Internet strategy. I think five years from now there will be a number of S&P 500 CEOs that will wish they’d started thinking earlier about their AI strategy.“

Now what? What can we do to prepare? In particular, how can we think about AI from a human perspective? How do we optimize AI from a consumer experience point of view? In Part II of this article, we’ll discuss the keys to focusing on AI’s benefits to us – the humans.

Samantha Starmer is speaking at AI & Machine Learning World 2017, June 13-15 as part of London Tech Week. Explore her session on the agenda.


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