Will AI Kill Fashion or Improve It?

I have to confess: I’m FAR from being an expert on AI.  But given my role at Google, and the work of my team members, it comes up in many conversations, is the engine behind some of the tools my team creates, and it makes its way into at least one article in my news feed a day.  So I have some understanding of it.

Lately, I’ve been talking about it in the context of fashion.  It’s undeniable that AI will have an increasingly greater impact on the fashion world in the coming years.  The question everyone asks is,”is that a good thing?” Like in other creative fields I work with, people are concerned that AI could squelch creativity or limit it altogether.  After all, its key value is automation. What happens to the human being behind all of this? Does all creativity just end? Will creative industries like fashion just fade away or change into something empty of artistic expression? One particular entrepreneur engaged in the fashion tech space argued that soon AI will scan our behaviors, predict what we’d like into an ideal outfit and then we’d scan the looks into a 3D printer which will print out our clothing at home.  No more need for fashion design and no more need for fashion retailers.

I don’t quite agree.  

I was asked to comment about this topic and few other fashion and strategy related issues in an interview with Geoffrey Colon, a marketing disruptor and innovator from Microsoft.  He hosts a podcast, “Disruptive FM” and interviews various people from across the globe every year at the Cannes Lions Festival.  His Cannes video is called “Fashion Boutique.” Geoffrey didn’t waste any time with me under the hot sun and homed into the interplay of AI and fashion.   No question AI will be able to get a faster, maybe even more, nuanced read of our habits, preferences and activities than a human being could.  And with that speed and nuance, it can create styles that every individual would likely find appealing. 

But there is still a need for the human being to oversee and correct or pivot the findings of AI.  Certain cultural norms or expectations may underpin our fashion sense that can’t be picked up through behavior alone.  Certain permutations and combinations may seem to look nice via an algorithm but appear “off” as the end result. Technology is our friend.  It does the tedious work for us so we can then build off of it and spend more time playing and evolving fashion.

Prior to my podcast I was mining my friend and fashion tech guru, Amanda Parkes for insight on this matter since she speaks on stages all over the world on this and related topics.  She highlighted a few fashion companies taking hold of AI like H&M and Myntra which uses machine learning to design full collections in record speeds. But there’s human beings along the way, tapping their sense of creativity to enhance machine learning to be that much more nuanced.  AI isn’t killing fashion or creativity; it’s allowing us to do it more quickly and in different ways.

AI will give us greater personalization than ever before, we we all love that (think the craze over Nike ID).  Could the hyper personalization we crave and receive from AI further discount the need for human side of fashion?  After all, we are getting exactly what suits us, right? Of course we seek clothing that benefits our specific lifestyles and needs.  But there’s the other side of fashion. The side that surprises, enlightens and inspires us.  It’s the side that opens our eyes to something we never even REALIZED we needed. AI can bring us closer to that, but it’s human beings who can take it to the next level.

As Dr. Anastassia Lauterbach, tech entrepreneur and author, said so adroitly: “The word intelligence in AI is highly confusing and causes funny discussions. Today there is nothing absolutely intelligent in Machine learning applications. Everything happens by design, and this design is done by humans – preferably in diverse teams. Humans decide what criteria get emphasized in a model. Machine learning scales what ever good or bad gets into the datasets and algorithms. Every profession needs to adjust to a world where some coding will be as normal as cooking today. Yes, you can eat in restaurants every day and let others cook for you. But it is maybe nice to be capable to produce something on your own. Same is true with AI in any industry. If you choose technology illiteracy, you can lament the death of creativity. Or you can use your great knowledge and add new skills, partner with technologists who are capable to listen, and do the work. AI is not a conscious agent. It is a tool…it can be used in a smart way, and support your ideas. The Intelligence on what and how remains yours.”

The opportunity is in front of us: retreat from AI or harness it to take creativity to newer and maybe even greater heights.

For the full video, click here (My piece starts around the 10 minute mark).

Can Technology Be Biased? This Beauty Contest Reveals How Much

 

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Before I start, allow me to thank you all for your super interesting comments on last week’s post.   I love hearing and learning from all of you!

And now for our regularly scheduled program…:)

For about a year I’ve come across a few stories about beauty contests being judged by robots, that is Artificial Intelligence.   By measuring people’s (let’s face it, women’s) facial structures these robots can accurately determine beauty.  And given the judges are robots versus actual humans, we assume that the judgements are devoid of cultural or ethnic biases.  I’ve read these stories with mild interest.  But this time, a recent story stuck with me…and not in a good way.

I’m sure such a contest raises a whole host of issues for many of you.  First, I imagine many of you oppose such contests — humans or no humans as judges.  How can one judge beauty anyway?  Second, so much of physical beauty emanates from within.  I’m not talking about inner beauty.  That’s a whole other subject.  I’m talking about the energy, the light, the passion that springs forth from someone making then either more or less beautiful.  Can a robot really judge that?

But those issues aside, my biggest concern with this contest is what is conveys about technology as a whole.  The results of these contests showed how actually, how terribly biased A.I. can be!

According to this article in NextWeb, the contest drew over 6,000 applications from across 100 countries. And despite the obvious diversity of beauty that the robots were exposed to, out of the 44 winners, only a few were Asian, one was black, and the rest were white.  None had dark skin.

WTF!

Are the foolproof “complex algorithms” that biased?  I’m afraid so.  How can that be?  Easy.  A human being has designed them that way.  And that’s pretty scary.

I’m not saying the engineers behind the algorithms intentionally developed them to be pro white.  It’s just that bias is going to inevitable when the majority of the brilliant brains behind the development of technology are of a certain gender, ethnic background or culture.  No matter how much we try to rid ourselves of our biases, it’s super, super hard to erase the ones we don’t even know we have.

If technology can be biased when it comes to beauty, could it also be biased when it comes to truly understanding the user and what s/he needs?  Or can it be biased with regards to places on the map or particular destinations?  You get the point.

So what do we do?  It’s not a new news that we should push harder for diversity our work places.  It makes for diversity of thought and ideas.  But it goes deeper than that.  Diversity ensures that the seemingly “judge-free,” non-biased technologies we create actually hold up to that expectation.  When humans are led by their biases, we forgive them.  Because, well, it’s “human” not to be perfect.  But technology shouldn’t make mistakes, right?  It can’t be biased.  So if technology, or in this case A.I., declares someone fit or beautiful or smart, well then it must be so!    And the result?  People deem the seemingly unbiased robots as arbiters of truth.

I’m not the first person to call for more diversity.  It’s a MUST.  But I’m also calling on all of us to challenge our notions of how “smart” our technology really is.  Believe me, I LOVE technology.  I’m benefiting from it in all aspects of my life, and, most, importantly in my job.  But let’s realize that behind all technology are human beings.  This recognition should mostly strike a sense of admiration in human kind. After all it takes a buttload of brilliance to be creating the amazing technology we have, and will have in the coming years.  But it should also open our eyes to that fact that technology isn’t fool proof, totally unbiased or “right” all the time.

Let’s remember, human beings are the smartest, most elegant and beautiful “machines” that exist.  We are complex, emotional and gorgeous in so many diverse ways.  We don’t need a technology-driven beauty contest to prove that.