Designing for Autonomous Machines

Alex Liebergesell
Associate Professor 
Graduate Communications Design
Pratt Institute


“The Future of Employment”, published by the Oxford Martin School in 2013, predicts significant displacement of human labor forces over the coming two decades, as computerization and robotics continue to migrate from routine manual to non-routine cognitive tasks. While designers fare well in the study’s susceptibility-to-displacement rankings, we will need to establish new “complementarities” with the creative and social intelligence capabilities of cutting edge robotics if we are to thrive.  The recent acquisition of Google xLab/Boston Dynamics and their proprioceptively advanced robots by Softbank, the Japanese inventor and domestic distributor of the emotionally responsive home companion “Pepper,” is just one indication of how quickly technological, market and social developments are converging to propel smart, autonomous machines into our everyday lives. These machines’ near-future capacity for causal reasoning and insight — and uncanny humanoid presence — will call upon designers’ expertise in shaping language, user experiences and interactions, all unique and generalist meta-cognitive skills that still define specific human advantages. Having shifted from a preoccupation with form to the construction of meaning, design practice — whether in communications, products or space planning — can seek to take additional steps in creating conversations, codifying behaviors, and defining new artifacts and physical ecosystems that are sensible, graspable and navigable to both humans and machines in innumerable settings. Moreover, by modeling positive speech and behavior, shared environments and common social values, designers, when creating and coexisting alongside autonomous machines, will do no less than encourage humans to recognize and cherish reciprocity, civility and labor.