Peter Brock: What gets lost with the increasing use of AI in design

Photograph Courtesy BMW

The ever-encroaching and seeming simplicity of adding artificial intelligence to almost every aspect of our daily lives is often reflected in the mental lethargy of this current era. It seems there is no corner of our current existence that isn’t now negatively affected by AI

Whether it’s passing off a borrowed and electronically reworked text or illustration for a homework assignment in grammar school or submitting a pivotal document in government, business or medicine that could literally change the lives of unsuspecting millions, AI is now looking highly suspect. 

There’s no reversing technology, so we’re going to have to live with it, but that doesn’t mean we have to embrace it. The question remains, how can we control it? How will it affect automotive design, which is inherently about human creativity?

Prior to production of any new product or enactment of any new edict, what entity finally determines what is acceptable and what is rejected? In the end, long past any concept’s point of acceptance, only time will determine the true value of such questionable decisions. 

As an automotive designer, I’ve been intrigued by a series of thought-provoking comments recently circulating online amongst a group of us who informally stay in touch to share whatever interesting automotive concept, event or trend that seems even mildly important. 

Any such questionable element might negatively affect what we, as designers, collectively value as one of the most important aesthetic movements of this century. Consequently, we feel it’s important to comment, whether positively or negatively, in order to maintain as high a level of respect for our art as possible. 

It’s not easy, as the millions of appallingly bad AI-infected examples now clogging our roads and highways continue to demonstrate. Injecting visual automotive AI proposals into what has been, up to now, a collection of highly selective and personally felt concepts, is disturbing because these submissions, which might initially seem like highly credible, professionally created renderings, are often nothing more than a load of slick, rehashed combinations of previously recognized answers. 

What gets lost with the increasing use of AI are two of the most important factors in great design: innovation and passion. These two points and the taste of those with proven experience in charge of making these final critical selections are what we’re ultimately forced to live with.

As designers, each of us has a personal style that defines our work. Some can be beautifully rendered by hand; others are just quick sketches. Each, when approved by management, has to have some special quality or idea that can be judged important enough to let it proceed to the next step and maybe even on to production.     

An idea or design’s final acceptance is often quietly compromised in some manner for personal or financial considerations at some distant level, with little opportunity for discussion or response from its initial creator. It’s an unfortunate variable we’re forced to live with. 

So when there is some definitive agreement and a concept finally emerges for production and receives mass public acceptance, it’s celebrated as a success by the decision makers even though their final choice may have been far less aesthetically satisfying than its originator intended. Not all of us were fortunate enough to have a final arbiter of style like GM’s Bill Mitchell or equally talented leaders like Voisin, Bugatti, Ferrari or Bob Lutz.

These collective and highly intrapersonal commentaries might seem rather self-indulgent to those outside our small group of creative thinkers. Aesthetic success in this field can hardly be seriously compared with any other form of contribution to society that favorably affects all humanity. 

However, any pleasing visual win, no matter how insignificant, is still treasured by all who know or care enough to comment. The fact that automotive design might even be considered an art by some is laughable, but to those seriously involved, it’s the focus of our existence. 

At the opposite end of the scale, for the person contemplating a new set of wheels, the honesty of their decision probably has more to do with projected image, cost, reliability, interior comfort and maybe the price of fuel. 

As for the future value of AI, I don’t expect it to become another arrow in any passionate designer’s quiver of innovative ideas. Automotive design by its very nature is a unique and entertaining kinetic art form that affects millions whether they realize it or not. Automobiles of every type and shape are being continually judged, appraised and commented upon every moment of the day by people in every stratum of society where such examples are continually exposed in that common gallery of art upon which we drive every day.

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