Will product design be simulated in virtual worlds? Are robots set to become our colleagues? Vogue asks the big questions to futurist Sophie Hackford.
Sophie Hackford spends her time meeting rebel thinkers in remote labs and creative spaces around the globe. Her mission? To find out the technologies that are shaping the future. If the world is becoming a computer, how can the fashion industry use machines to its advantage, or rather, work with them as virtual teammates?
“We are being observed and categorised by Artificial Intelligence in parts of our lives that weren’t previously watched,” Hackford begins. “As this great data generator gets closer to us, the only thing that will change is who owns the data and what control we have over it.” The Big Question is whether it’s in consumers’ interests to sell information – a debate that Washington is currently grappling with. After 60 years of disappointments, in which a lot was promised by AI, but not much of it seen, and breaches of trust coming to light, like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica case, it’s easy to feel disconcerted by the increasing amount of information the world has at its fingertips.
Hackford questions whether we have created the “wrong” type of internet. “We’ve built it based on monetising audiences, as opposed to the beautiful sharing space for knowledge that Tim Berners-Lee imagined at the beginning.” She predicts that we’ll be much more prescriptive about how we receive information going forward, and that “bots” will be essential to serving our needs.
"We will have our own bot, our own little agent, our own avatar to negotiate on our behalf – a sort of digital ambassador," she explained at the Condé International Luxury conference earlier this month. It will represent the world to us by giving us information and news, and represent us to the world by allowing brands to market directly to it, rather than us. If this sounds like a galaxy far, far away, “the train has already left the station,” Hackford says. "All we need to do is stitch together the various AI aspects in our lives – [the Alexas, the Siris] – and we’re almost there.”
Imagine this: Instead of travelling across the globe to a business meeting, in the future you’ll have the option of sending your virtual avatar. Investors may demand that an AI sits on a board, or is involved in major business decision-making. Lawyers, for example, could have to consult a bot to ensure that they are covered by malpractice insurance. "AI should be seen as a team mate, not a competitor," Hackford shares, “AI can't yet go deep into experience, which fashion requires, but it can help us solve business problems.”
The expense and ethics of AI are currently holding us back: “We need to make sure we’re not using technology to widen inequality or worsen social injustice.” To move forward we need to strike a balance, and inject humanity into the machines we're developing.
Inspector Gadget style can be avoided quite simply, she says, with creativity. “We’re not suffering from a lack of technology, we’re suffering from a lack of imagination of what to do with it. The gulf between true creativity and technology is massive."
It’s not easy to imagine the future – “remember back in the 90s when we tried to envisage what mobile phones would become?” – but virtual reality can help. Designers, for example, will be able to visualise fabric composition using nano-scale simulations, or see how people will interact with new products using big virtual worlds, like computer games.
“This innovation could be the moment the luxury industry has been waiting for,” she offers. “It’s pretty easy to copy a designer bag nowadays, but new materials are going to be very difficult to counterfeit because they’re so complex.”
If a handbag is grown in a lab, where does its value lie? When do people have to touch a product to make it artisanal? What if the future of materials is not material at all? Yet more Big Questions, and ones not even Alexa can answer. For this, we need real imagination.