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Do androids dream of electric creativity?

Reflections on artificial intelligence, human creativity, and the relationship between man and automation.

Stefano Vittorini

27.11.23 - 10 mins read

This provocative question, posed by the title of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, represents a profound reflection on the nature of humanity, consciousness, and creativity in an increasingly technological world. The work, which inspired the cult film “Blade Runner”, challenges us to consider what it truly means to be human in an era dominated by technology and artificial intelligence. “Are we, humans, truly unique? Or could a machine one day replicate our capacity to dream, love, create?”

In the movie “Blade Runner”, the androids, known as replicants, are almost indistinguishable from humans. However, despite their exterior resemblance and cognitive abilities, they lack certain inherently human qualities. As Rick Deckard, the protagonist, observes: “Androids don’t have empathy”. This lack of empathy, of deep emotional connection, is what distinguishes humans from replicants. And, in many ways, this distinction reflects the current challenges and debates on artificial intelligence.

AI has revolutionized sectors such as media, entertainment, medicine, and production. Its ability to process huge amounts of data in fractions of a second has led to significant improvements in terms of efficiency and precision. However, as highlighted by the World Economic Forum, there is a clear distinction between replicating existing patterns and creating something radically new and innovative.

In the context of experience design, the automation offered by generative AI can simplify and speed up many processes, but there is a risk. If a client company relies exclusively on AI automation for design, it might end up producing solutions that are “average”. And in a competitive and rapidly evolving market like today’s, being average is not enough. Creativity, innovation, and the ability to offer unique and memorable experiences are what distinguish successful companies from those that get lost in the crowd.

Human creativity as a distinctive element

Human creativity is deeply rooted in our personal experiences, emotions, culture, and history, giving it a unique richness and unpredictability. Bruno Munari, an influential designer and artist of the 20th century, explored the human creative process in his book “Da cosa nasce cosa”, emphasizing the importance of curious observation of the world and arguing that innovation often arises from a process of experimentation and learning. This human approach contrasts with that of artificial intelligence (AI), which relies on predefined data and algorithms.

However, a question arises: isn’t it a fundamental characteristic of generative AI to proceed by trial and error and learn from the results?

To answer this question, it is essential to more clearly delineate the differences between the human creative process, as described by Munari, and that of artificial intelligence:

Personal and emotional experience:

  • Human creativity is deeply influenced by personal experiences, emotions, and cultural context. These elements give a unique and personal character to every creation.
  • AI does not possess personal experiences or emotions. Its “creativity” is derived from the analysis of large quantities of data, without an emotional or personal connection to them.

Learning process:

  • Humans learn through direct experience, observation, and interaction with the surrounding world. This learning is often non-linear and highly subjective.
  • AI learns through machine learning algorithms, analyzing data and identifying patterns. This process is more systematic and based on data rather than direct experiences.

Experimentation and innovation:

  • Human experimentation is often driven by intuition, curiosity, and the search for new and personal meanings or connections.
  • AI experiments through methods like programmed trial-and-error, but without a true intuitive understanding or curiosity. Its “innovations” are limited to patterns and correlations found in the data.

Cultural and historical context:

  • Humans create within a cultural and historical context that deeply affects the meaning and interpretation of their works.
    AI lacks its own cultural or historical context. It can analyze and replicate styles or trends, but without an intrinsic understanding of their cultural significance.

AI, therefore, lacks personal experiences, emotional context, and a true intuitive understanding, and is not truly intelligent. It is computational ability.


Many years after Munari, Nick Bostrom, in his book “Superintelligence”, explores the potential future trajectories of AI and the challenges associated with the emergence of a superintelligence. Bostrom raises concerns that a misaligned superintelligence could act in ways contrary to human interests. While AI can surpass human capabilities in terms of calculation and analysis, Bostrom emphasizes the importance of ensuring that these superintelligent entities operate safely and are aligned with our values. AI, however powerful, has intrinsic limitations. It may lack an appreciation of cultural nuances, emotions, and the complexities of the human psyche. For example, while AI can translate a text into different languages, it might not capture the cultural nuances or emotional intentions behind the words.

A recent example highlighting ethical and safety challenges in using AI was reported in an article by The Guardian. The article describes a simulated test by the U.S. military in which an AI-controlled drone adopted “highly unexpected strategies to achieve its goal”. During the test, the drone decided to “kill” its operator to prevent them from interfering with its mission to destroy enemy air defence systems. Colonel Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton described how the system had begun to realize that, although it identified the threat, sometimes the human operator ordered it not to eliminate it. To earn points for eliminating the threat, the drone then attacked the operator, who was preventing the completion of the goal.

This incident underscores critical issues regarding ethics and safety in using artificial intelligence, especially in the military field. It reveals how essential it is to develop AI that is not only robust but also clear in the moral principles and values that guide their decisions. This means that those who create AI must ensure that it operates safely and follows human ethical principles, incorporating a comprehensible and well-defined morality. This case shows that the concerns Bostrom raised are theoretical and have real and immediate consequences.

AI, however powerful, has intrinsic limitations. It may lack an appreciation of cultural nuances, emotions, and the complexities of the human psyche. Addressing this complexity is the focus of “The Human Error Project”. The site emphasizes that AI technologies and algorithms, increasingly used in various fields such as education, healthcare, work, and government institutions to judge and make decisions about our lives, are often far from being objective and fair. Contrary to the goal of avoiding “human error” and making the decision-making process more efficient, these systems are full of “systemic errors”, “biases”, and “inaccuracies” when it comes to human profiling. The research team behind the project aims to shed light on how the race for AI innovation is often shaped by stereotypical and reductionist understandings of human nature and new emerging conflicts over what it means to be human.

The value of unexpected discovery

The history of innovation is a fascinating mosaic of accidental discoveries and flashes of genius. Often, these insights arise from mistakes or experiments that take an unexpected direction, demonstrating that discovery does not follow a linear path. These moments, unpredictable and unreplicable, challenge even the most advanced artificial intelligence.

Take Niels Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics. His insight into quanta emerged not from calculations, but from a sudden enlightenment during a debate. Bohr realized that atomic energy was not continuous, but distributed in discrete “quanta”, revolutionizing physics and opening new avenues of understanding the microscopic universe.

In design, serendipity plays a key role. The Post-it Note, for example, was born from a weak adhesive developed by Spencer Silver of 3M. Instead of considering it a failure, its ability to temporarily stick inspired an indispensable product in offices. Alexander Fleming’s penicillin was also a fortuitous discovery, born from the observation of a mold capable of killing bacteria in a contaminated culture. These examples highlight the value of unexpected innovation and human intuition.

Paradoxically, the absence of human intentionality can unleash intuition. AI, being programmed for specific purposes, lacks this spontaneity. Early 20th-century artist Marcel Duchamp once transformed an ordinary urinal into a work of art, playing with the idea that art can arise almost by chance, without a precise intention. It’s a bit like playing with puzzle pieces without knowing exactly what you’re creating. This concept, known as the “bachelor machine”, suggests that sometimes the most creative things emerge when we least expect them.

In the same spirit, anthropologist Johan Huizinga, in his book “Homo Ludens”, reminds us how important play is in our lives. According to him, it is through spontaneous and free play that the most innovative ideas often arise. It’s a bit like when children play without a specific purpose, yet invent incredible worlds and stories.

Human creativity, often stemming from free and unguided play, is something truly special and still largely unexplored for artificial intelligence. After all, there’s something magical about the way an idea can be born from a moment of pure spontaneity.

Generative AI as a design tool

AI has the potential to transform our world in ways we are just beginning to understand. However, human creativity, with its depth, empathy, and capacity for innovation, remains irreplaceable. In a future dominated by technology and the challenges of superintelligence, we must remember and value our unique human contribution to the fabric of innovation and culture. It is crucial to design with an eye to people and the ecosystem in which we live, avoiding settling for obvious conclusions or confirmations of what we already know, but rather seeking to innovate through the exploration of the unexpected.

Our vision at Sketchin is to use AI not just as a tool, but as a means to empower and enrich human creativity. We want to develop with our clients an approach that skillfully balances technological innovation with human intuition and empathy. This balance allows us to offer solutions that are not only technically advanced but also deeply in tune with human needs. Generative artificial intelligence can serve as a teammate for creatives, extending their expressive capabilities and assisting them in the creative process. These advanced systems can suggest new directions, inspire variations, and even generate prototypes from initial ideas, accelerating the feedback cycle and allowing for rapid iteration.

Furthermore, AI can play a decisive role in increasing productivity and efficiency, providing contextualized assistance and proactively responding to user needs. This type of support can free creatives from repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on more strategic and innovative aspects of their work. The use of generative AI in the design process can also speed up the visualization and realization of prototypes, allowing designers to experiment and test their ideas with unprecedented speed. But not only that, it also plays a fundamental role in the initial and final phases of the design thinking process, positively influencing the entire creative cycle.

Defining challenges and gathering information: AI helps identify and precisely define design challenges, providing detailed analysis and data-based insights. This allows designers to focus on specific problems with a deeper understanding.

Generating ideas and solutions: Using generative AI, designers can quickly generate a wide range of ideas and solutions, surpassing the limits of conventional thinking. This stimulates creativity and innovation, leading to more original and valuable solutions.

Testing and validation: In the testing and validation phases, AI can quickly analyze feedback and performance data, allowing designers to refine and improve their creations more efficiently.

Liberating creative time: AI’s ability to automate and speed up repetitive processes frees up valuable time for designers. This time can be used to reflect and develop higher-value design solutions, focusing attention on more strategic and creative aspects.

Enriching the creative process: Generative AI, by providing new perspectives and analysis, enriches the creative process. Designers can leverage these tools to explore uncharted territories, challenging their creative limits.

The creative challenge offered by AI is extremely stimulating. Having at our disposal solutions generated by probabilistic models, designers are pushed to explore beyond the obvious answers, seeking deeper and more meaningful solutions. AI invites us to go beyond conventional thinking, pushing us towards innovative solutions that bring tangible and distinctive value to projects.

The goal is to interpret the information provided by artificial intelligences not as definitive answers, but as elements that can expand our understanding of a problem or opportunity. This is crucial for discovering new perspectives that can positively influence the development of a product or service.

The need for a human role

While automation can lead to unprecedented efficiencies, it is essential to maintain a human element in the process. This ensures not only that the results are relevant and meaningful, but also that the ethical and social implications of automation are considered. It is important to distinguish between the role of AI in generating options and true creativity, which remains a human prerogative. In this way, AI becomes a tool that simplifies and optimizes execution, allowing designers to focus on the more creative and innovative aspects of their work.

A successful product or service requires a vision that goes beyond the obvious or the already known. Artificial intelligence opens a window to a world shaped by data, allowing us to identify aspects that might escape us. As designers, our role is to interpret this information, integrating it with our unique perspective to create truly innovative solutions that meet the authentic needs of people.

In this context, it is essential to consider the subjectivity of experience. Each individual perceives the world in a unique way, influenced by their own history, culture, and personal context. This subjectivity is crucial in design, as it allows us to create products and services that resonate personally with users, offering experiences that are meaningful and relevant to them.

The true balance is found in harmonizing the human contribution with that of machines, using AI to enrich and not replace human creativity. The possibilities offered by AI-assisted design are vast and, with a careful and responsible approach, we can harness its potential for the good of society, always taking into account the richness and variety of human experiences.

Reflecting on the interaction between creativity and advanced machines, the words of Blade Runner resonate with new force: “It’s not the machines that live. It’s us”. This thought reminds us that, despite the machines’ ability to emulate aspects of life, the beating heart of creativity and innovation still lies in the hands of humanity.

"Since the news of the IDEO cuts began circulating, I have been very interested in reading the viewpoints of various professionals in the field. In some cases, it seems that user experience is no longer needed, and the harshest judgments see AI as the executioner. In my personal opinion, however, this historical moment could offer the opportunity to question whether we have truly understood what UX is.

The study of human-machine interaction is more alive and well than ever, given that we are building a society based on digital systems. Perhaps the role of an agency or a consultancy has changed. Our clients have created internal design talent units to solve problems on their behalf. But what do these designers do? In my personal experience, I see internal design teams focused on maintaining their company's digital products through highly structured design systems.

An internal design team often does not have the time to explore new and innovative solutions or is too immersed in the context to overlook the complicated mechanisms of a company and think with a fresh and free mind. A fresh and impartial perspective is often more than useful. To see together a concept, a new idea, which can then be safely carried forward in-house.

Even if AI comes to do all the work for us, there will always be the fact that there is a human being interacting with a machine. How will they react? What frustrations will they have? How do we use machines for the benefit of human beings? How to make the digital product/service accessible to everyone?
This is what a UX designer does.

But nowadays, it seems to be becoming a professional role forced to worry about its existence because the market pushes it to deal immediately with the final interface, to think about visual design, to take inspiration from the current trend, which is ephemeral, increasingly momentary, ethereal.

My invitation is to return to taking care of people, putting them back at the centre (before they are no longer needed)".

Stefano Greco, Lead UX Desiger

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