The Age of the Law of Accelerating Returns: Some Symptoms of Design and Art in the Future


There is something called the Law of Accelerating Returns. First proposed by Ray Kurzweil, a futurist devoting his remaining years at Google to develop artificial intelligence (AI), the Law refers to a phenomenon where technological development becoming exponential from linear as it accelerates over time. According to the Law, technology – particularly AI’s intelligence – will exceed overall human intelligence at one point and reach what is called singularity, making it impossible to predict the future. There are different views on whether we will reach singularity or not, however what is certain is that we are passing through the most important period in human history. How will rapid technological development and dissemination impact design, architecture and art, which are all closely related to human life? And what are the social roles of creators in today’s world and the near future?

Technological advance has direct impact on creative tools – for example, 3D printing. Traditionally, the creation of artificial products began from the outside, moving inwards. On the other hand, 3D printing accumulates from inside-out to create a physical form. 3D printed products go beyond small creations such as hats, clothes, accessories and chairs to architecture exceeding human scale, food made with organic ingredients and artificial organs. As such, 3D printing is becoming more widely used as it is available in many places while securing economic efficiency and diversity. However, one invisible internal change is the use of algorithms. Rapid advances of computing and engineering now allow designers and architects to input data variables and demonstrate desired products real time, thereby quickly narrowing the gap between ideas and actual products created in a physical space after virtual trial and error. Some examples in architecture are Building Information Modeling (BIM), which is widely used, even applied to cities as a single unit, and parametric design. Often recognized as irregular architecture, the parametric design method formulates a type of idea, converts building-related data into variables, organically links them to algorithms and identifies the most ideal result based on ever-proliferating alternatives.

At the heart of this algorithm-based computation design is AI. AI is equipped with cloud computing that efficiently solves complex calculations and deep learning that accumulate knowledge by emulating human brain neurons. With these technologies, AI is taking over creativity, an area which we believed AI cannot replace. AI today writes movie scenarios, analyses the works of Johann Sebastian Bach to compose Bach-style music, and studies paintings of Vincent van Gogh to draw objects in Van Gogh technique. In particular, AI reminds us of the once-prevalent apprenticeship in the art community, as it evolves through self-learning based on deep learning. The whole process is very similar to how art apprentices would imitate the painting styles and brush strokes of masters, practice and utilize them to create images with their own painting styles. The harsh truth is that AI engages in self-learning in a faster and wider manner to automatically master repetitive, simple creative works and maximize efficiency.

The United Nations’ State of the Future report forecasts the year 2025 and introduces future occupations related to art. In short, the new occupation called “future artist” will go through technological development and social changes and adopt a collaborative culture where experts in music, art, dancing and other areas come together to work. Also, complex plural art will be created through networks and communities in the hyperconnected society, art activities using technology and new materials will become a norm and there will be more links connecting art creation with education and play. Though obvious, we must think beyond predictable ideas to ask ourselves why we would still need art in the future. Technological advances offer more convenience and automation provides more leisure time, making our life ideal. However, will the values of such advances be the same in the future, where everyone is provided with the same benefits?

Humans in nature continue to seek meanings. We aspire to find the meaning of human existence as we look for meanings in experience and objects based on our personal beliefs. That means, the abundant future society doesn’t necessarily guarantee absolute happiness: humans feel relative satisfaction only when we understand why we live, rather than how. “It is our job to give freedom to people and shake them; to open doors to empathy and new interests; to help them realize we can aspire to be better and change,” wrote American Susan Sontag, in her book Literature is Freedom. The role of artists is to own the future, as Nam June Paik has once said, and the strongest power of art is asking people questions and letting them question their life.

In the era of AI, art has to turn to humanity, which is an eternal truth. Design and architecture are well aware that a thirst for humanity the ideal attitude of creators facing the future. Last year, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art held an international symposium themed “Superhumanity: How Humans Design Themselves.” It was a good opportunity to understand the opinions of scientists, aestheticians, architects and historians on the future human character we will see from the design and architectural perspective. The theme of the 2017 Istanbul Design Biennial was “Are We Human? The Design of The Species: 2 Seconds, 2 Days, 2 Years, 200 Years, 200,000 Years.” “Design has always belonged to humanity and existed as a form of service for humans,” says co-curators and architectural theorists Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley emphasizing that humanity lies at the bottom of design despite technological advances.

Art in the future will go through more dramatic change and turmoil than design and architecture had. Artists will assume the roles demanded by creators, workers, citizens and other groups of the population. They will also create an experimental environment for the public to perceive and stimulate humanity, as they strive to remember today’s analog in the world of internal visions and preserve the uniqueness of humans as we interact with machines. These efforts may be met by architectural space or design objects, or be designed as a method of educating people on the world of internal visions in the digital world and distributed as a form of entertainment through communities. Or the artist can even become influencers and ask him or herself through real time feedbacks, conversations and expanding relationship. What we must not forget in the infinite possibilities is an open mind and curiosity towards technology. “Art encourages people to look back on precious moments of life. Artists express them to contribute to our lives. Artists must keep up with technological advances that open new doors of expression and embrace new technologies,” said media artist Jeffrey Shaw, the founding director of the prominent Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM). His words indeed give us a remarkable hint on the future mindset of artists who face the era of accelerating returns in art.