Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence


I recently attended South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin where the Artificial Intelligence (AI) conversation was in full tilt. At one end of the spectrum, companies are cautiously exploring AI.  At the other end, there are companies that have jumped in with both feet. At FutureBrand Speck, our clients sit along the full continuum of the AI spectrum, sometimes from within different business units of the same company.

To better frame the conversation, I’ll offer a bit of context and clarify definitions. AI has been around since the 1950s as an academic discipline and the government began investing in it around the same time. Its purpose was to increase the efficiency of computing power and scalability. The confusing part is that much of today’s conversations around AI are actually referencing Machine Learning (ML), which is essentially defined as computing systems that have the ability to “learn” through data to progressively improve performance on a specific task without being explicitly programmed. While there are a variety of schools of thought on where the leap occurs between AI and ML, I define AI as the ability of a machine to mimic cognitive functions that humans associate with other human minds, including learning and problem solving.

There’s no doubt that the idea of a machine mimicking human cognitive functions is mind boggling and disconcerting. There’s also no doubt that it’s real, it’s advanced, and that there’s no going back. It’s natural to be afraid of it, but we can’t pretend that it’s not happening. What can we do? Participate in the conversation. Share fears.  Sit down at the table and not under it.

It starts with moving on from the idea that AI marks the end of the human experience as we know it and shift to the idea that AI will improve lives. The possibilities are endless – AI can be applied to not only better healthcare outcomes, improved transportation efficiencies, and industrial innovation, but also hyper-personalization capabilities that help companies across industries better serve the needs of their customers.

Assumptions sit at the core of AI, and this is where we humans really need to step up. Within the next three years, the assumptions that are baked in will be deeply buried into the foundation that will shape our future decision-making modalities. The outputs of AI are as effective as the paradigm we give it. There will be missteps, and there will be learning gaps. What will this look like at a practical level? We can start with healthcare - medical records that don’t automatically tag asthma patients as vulnerable to pneumonia, diagnostic tools that can’t cross-tab the complexities of pre-existing conditions with new symptoms and expected outcomes, or even databases that have room for only two genders. These examples are merely the tip of tip of the iceberg within one specific industry - healthcare. The breadth and depth of the impact that AI presents across all industries will shape the framework of our human experience without most of us even realizing it’s happening.

As human-centered design experts, we at FutureBrand Speck have a unique perspective on where AI and the optimization of the human experience intersect. It starts with our belief that humans inform the technology, not the other way around. This is why we start with developing a deep understanding of our users’ essential need drivers and delve deep into the research to understand not only what users require from a functional perspective, but also how they feel about their experience while using a particular product or service.

How does this play out in the real world? Consider these examples. We worked with Vocera, a healthcare communications platform, to define its key parameters for communication badges.  By studying user interactions with the platform at a granular level, we were able to create a secure product that provisioned users for the tools and access they needed to effectively do their jobs, empowering them to deliver better patient care frustration-free.  We also worked with Google on the Tango AR Tablet. For this project, we focused on the physical interaction between the user and the tablet, solving challenges around the angle of the camera array, hand placement, and device orientation. Through this process, we created a user-intuitive tablet experience that could perceive depth, shape, and form, just as human eyes can.

The key takeaway is that AI can be smart without being perceptive. This sits at the heart of the fear around the new technology – the difference between artificial intelligence and nuanced autonomy. Our philosophy centers on the idea that the design process must start with understanding the functional, experiential, and emotional aspects of user needs – successful design hinges on our ability to address all three factors. The convergence of these factors is what creates the value that drives innovation.    

Contact us to learn more about how FutureBrand Speck prioritizes human factors to design connected experiences.

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