Humanizing Technology in the Age of Conscious AI

Conscious Experience Design

Designing for the evolving human+machine relationship

A column by Ken Olewiler
June 17, 2024

The breathtaking evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming innovation and shaping human behavior. Now, more than ever, the concept of conscious AI experiences is becoming a reality. The race to innovate and evolve products, businesses, and our digital lives is more urgent than ever—and more essential for our future success. UX designers must lead the way in guiding the evolution of next-gen product experiences to create more conscious AI experiences.

A Big-Bang Era of Change

Technology is at a poignant juncture—in the midst of a collision of contrasting forces that have sent shock waves through industries and economies worldwide. At one end of the spectrum, the technology industry has witnessed a downturn that has been characterized by widespread layoffs and financial contractions, echoing the turbulence of the business world. Simultaneously, we’ve set the stage for an unprecedented boom: the AI revolution, which represents a unique moment in the history of technology. Artificial intelligence has emerged as a force for change, transforming the very fabric of our digital existence.

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Newton’s third law asserts that for every action, there exists an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, we have witnessed the collision of economic instability with the surging tide of technological advancement that AI is propelling. This collision has released energy at a disruptive velocity, resulting in a blend of challenges and opportunities that is pushing us into uncharted territories. Today, the businesses and UX designers who are courageously reinventing themselves are pioneers who are redefining the future landscape of AI technology and laying the groundwork for a new era of innovation, adaptability, and unparalleled success.

AI Is the New UI

AI is poised to become the ubiquitous user interface (UI) of life—quite literally the new primary interface for interaction—and represents a profound paradigm shift in product user interfaces. This shift marks a departure from the conventional user interfaces that have prevailed for decades. Instead of relying on explicit commands and predefined controls, AI leverages advanced machine-learning (ML) capabilities to intelligently infer and automatically respond to user inputs in more natural ways. Natural-language processing (NLP), predictive algorithms, and contextual awareness enable AI user interfaces to comprehend user intent, adapt to users’ preferences, and proactively anticipate users’ needs.

AI is evolving into an ever-present, always-aware digital consciousness that forms an intangible layer providing an interface between people and their world. This omnipresent, digital layer manifests as personal assistants, teachers, guides, and collaborators, subtly enhancing users’ daily interactions. AI offers capabilities and power that were previously unimaginable, making this interface both pervasive and unobtrusive. This signifies a significant leap in user interactions, with technology seamlessly integrating into the fabric of our lives. As AI becomes the new UI, we must realign customer experiences, making them more seamless and easier to learn, leveraging AI to create a more connected and responsive relationship between machines and humans.

The Machine-to-Human Relationship

AI’s most significant influence derives from the ways in which it is reshaping the machine-to-human relationship. Rather than humans’ having to learn how to use technology, technology is now learning to become more human. Digital-product UX teams are now focusing on the machine-to-human connection, using AI to create more human-like interactions through cognitive, sensory, and social capabilities across products. No longer inanimate, machines are becoming conscious, ubiquitous, living systems.

Technology is no longer a tool. It is transforming into a full-fledged partner and collaborator that is capable of predictive insights, relationships, creativity, and emotional engagement. The result is technology that is intricately converging with life. Companies that understand and internalize the significance of this convergence have opportunities to win more customers, outpace their competition, and ride the tide of innovation. But, to capitalize on this transformation, they must redesign customer and employee experiences for a more humanized intelligence. This new machine-to-human relationship can drive more value and greater freedom for people.

Humanizing Technology for Conscious Products

AI is now taking on more human-like sensibilities, seamlessly integrating multimodal cognition, sensory perception, social interaction, and ethical responsibility. Companies that can embrace and capitalize on these dimensions of conscious AI will experience greater opportunities for growth and success in the era of conscious AI.

As UX designers, our mission is to become the stewards of this humanizing technology. While engineers and developers have been leading technology advancement, it is now our responsibility to guide and advocate for responsible solutions that enhance and empower humanity. But to accomplish this goal, we must garner greater insights into and expertise in the four transformative dimensions and themes that drive AI consciousness: cognitive, sensory, social, and responsible AI. In this column, I’ll explore these four areas of growth, which require new UX research, insights, and methods.

  1. Thinking Big: Empowering Ingenuity with Cognitive AI—Multimodal cognitive capabilities enable a more accurate, advanced intelligence that can empower greater human ingenuity.
  2. Making Sense: Engaging Intuition with Sensory AI—Sensory perception and spatial computing bring us more natural, ambient ways of interfacing with technology that is shifting to effortless, seamless experiences.
  3. Providing Support: Enriching Relationships with Social AI—Agent relationships grow through advanced social and emotional intelligence, nurturing more personal insights, expression, and assistance.
  4. Doing Good: Ensuring Value with Responsible AI—Action prevails over alarm to implement responsible ethical, societal, and environment standards to prevent harm and ensure positive human impacts.

1. Thinking Big: Empowering Ingenuity with Cognitive AI

Thinking Big is a call to harness the full potential of human creativity and problem-solving in tandem with AI. Cognitive AI empowers individuals and organizations to dream beyond their limitations, tackle grand challenges, and propel human ingenuity into new realms of progress.

Cognitive AI is opening unprecedented realms of creativity and problem-solving through its ability to reason, learn, and mimic the intricacies of human cognition. As AI moves beyond large language models (LLMs) to aggregate vision and other sensory input modalities, advancements in multimodal cognition enable machines to more accurately discern context and intent. This, in combination with AI’s ability to analyze vast datasets, recognize patterns, and draw nuanced conclusions deepens the synergy between human creativity and machine intelligence. A cooperative, symbiotic relationship is emerging, whereby AI serves as a powerful ally to human beings in navigating complex challenges and envisioning novel opportunities. AI acts as a force multiplier for human capabilities, fostering an environment in which big ideas can flourish.

Multimodal Cognition

The next frontiers in cognitive AI development are enhanced contextual understanding and improved reasoning abilities. While cognitive AI has made significant strides in emulating human intelligence, one notable frontier that remains to be explored fully is the achievement of humanistic, multimodal capabilities. Multimodal AI involves the integration of various sensory inputs such as text, images, and audio to enable a comprehensive understanding of the human environment.

Current cognitive AI systems specialize in specific modalities such as ChatGPT’s natural-language processing or image recognition. The ability to seamlessly process and integrate information from multiple sources is a critical next step in AI’s advancement. Developments in multimodal AI will soon enable systems to comprehend and respond to complex, real-world scenarios, enhancing their versatility and applicability.

Fine-Tuning for Accuracy

The presence of hallucinations and inaccuracies in AI’s outputs is currently hindering the advancement of AI. It is impossible to rely solely on current LLM models within critical industries such as healthcare and defense because of concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the information they provide. Eliminating hallucinations and enhancing precision is crucial for AI to make meaningful progress. However, there is optimism as leading companies and data scientists are rapidly fine-tuning and improving LLMs to ensure accuracy and reliability. This ongoing refinement can pave the way for a more specialized intelligence that we can trust in critical applications, addressing a key limitation of and fostering greater confidence in AI.

Human Augmentation with Cognitive AI

Contrary to the fear that widespread AI automation could replace people’s jobs, a more realistic role for AI is assistance and augmentation rather than the complete automation and replacement of particular jobs. AI has the potential to empower people rather than render them obsolete. The central challenge lies in finding the right balance in how AI assists people. Research is crucial to understanding peoples’ expectations and comfort levels with an autonomous digital intelligence. As cognitive AI capabilities improve, UX designers must embrace AI as a new partner that can enhance our own ingenuity—both in the design process and creating breakthrough solutions.

What to do:

  1. Expand AI empowerment beyond simple tasks to practical applications that scale. Ensure AI features are providing quantifiable value rather than temporary novelty.
  2. Conduct qualitative research into users’ expectations of autonomy. Create autonomy blueprints to map control and guide assistive support.
  3. Assess where AI would best integrate into the user experience for maximum impact. Deconstruct jobs or experiences into task workflows, prioritizing areas for assistance.

2. Making Sense: Engaging Intuition with Sensory AI

Making Sense signifies a shift toward a more natural, sensory-driven user interface with technology that AI can facilitate. Multisensory and spatial perception can bolster AI’s capabilities to infer and proactively interpret human intentions and reduce reliance on extensive physical controls. Sensory AI can empower people to engage naturally with ambient assistance.

However, Making Sense represents a departure from our issuing explicit commands to technology. Technology can now comprehend implicit cues and engage with users on a more natural level. Sensory AI is grounded in sensory awareness, enables anticipatory responses, and makes interactions feel effortless. As technology adapts to people’s preferences and needs, it fosters synergy between human intuition and artificial intelligence. As more natural interactions between humans and machines emerge, a richer connection between people and the digital environment becomes possible.

Multisensory Ambient Computing

The evolution of sensory AI can dramatically improve human-machine interactions by incorporating multisensory interactions. Multisensory experiences can enrich sensory perception and expression in ways that reflect more natural human communications and comprehension. Ambient computing promises almost imperceptible interactions between users and technology. Sensory AI harnesses the power of various sensory modalities in interpreting the nuances of human behaviors and objectives. Thus, a machine can predict users’ needs, adapt to their preferences, and seamlessly integrate into the fabric of their activities. The result is a harmonious coexistence in which technology enhances rather than interrupts our experiences.

Spatial-Computing Convergence

As AI expands its sensory capabilities, a major shift is underway to simulating human spatial perception and interactions. The growth of spatial computing marks a significant advance in the technological landscape, revolutionizing the ways in which we interact with and perceive the digital and physical worlds. Spatial computing enables technology to perceive spatial context and integrate dimensionality into digital and physical spaces. Spatial computing can transcend traditional boundaries by creating more immersive and context-aware experiences. It is quickly moving beyond virtual reality (VR) alone to focus on fluid movement between and convergence of mixed-reality worlds. This convergence can create more seamless experiences and open up new opportunities for more realistic interactions across our digital and physical worlds.

Still in its infancy, spatial computing has not yet extended to the masses, but as the capabilities of sensory AI expand, expect to see its impact grow quickly and progressively over the next few years. This transformative paradigm shift of spatial computing and convergence is integral to making AI technology more human-like. The companies that embrace this concept early, develop the necessary expertise, and reimagine their product experiences for this new spatial era can achieve greater success.

Human Intuition with Sensory AI

Sensory AI is slowly expanding its ability to simulate human-like intuition through ambient computing and multisensory interactions. By incorporating advanced sensors and AI algorithms, ambient-computing systems can analyze user behaviors, environmental data, and contextual information. The goal is to create a technological environment that adapts to the habits and preferences of individual users, providing more natural interactions with the digital world. UX designers can improve their expertise in sensory AI by expanding their conceptual understanding of spatial interactions and rethinking common 2D methods for 3D contexts.

What to do:

  1. Enrich generative AI user interfaces with multisensory modalities, moving beyond prompts alone. Employ a mixture of visual, voice, audio, and haptics for natural, effortless interactions.
  2. Reimagine the user experience from a spatial-computing perspective. Incorporate spatial engagement and 3D into products to create clear value rather than novelty.
  3. Conduct generative and evaluative research into human behaviors within ambient, immersive paradigms. Enlist specialists to create emerging prototypes.

3. Providing Support: Enriching Relationships with Social AI

Providing Support represents the profound relationships that individuals can foster with their digital companions. Thanks to social AI, these assistants can achieve heightened social awareness and emotional sensibilities, enabling them to offer more empathetic, personalized interactions and support. As a result, relationship design will emerge as a crucial skill in guiding and nurturing a more human-like partnership.

Social AI can offer users a trusted digital agent that is constantly at their disposal. In this departure from conventional human-computer interfaces, the emphasis is not solely on accomplishing tasks but also on fostering meaningful partnerships. Effective agents should have personalities and characteristics that resonate with users, creating a bond between man and machine that transcends transactional exchanges and fosters digital companions that can anticipate and infer people’s desires and needs. With emotional intelligence, conversational abilities, and a deep understanding of the user’s personal preferences, these agents can enable deeper, more rewarding relationships between people and technology.

Autonomous Agents

Advances in generative AI have sparked the development of a plethora of new AI agents and assistants for in-vehicle and in-home applications. With improved comprehension and conversational and creative abilities, these agents can better interpret unique contexts, the user’s tone of voice, and, thus, actual user intent. The next generation of digital assistants will evolve into autonomous agents with advanced cognitive abilities and be capable of independently executing complex actions. Such agents can seamlessly collaborate with humans as well as other agents, enhancing problem-solving and task efficiency. An ecosystem of autonomous agents can forge bonds and collaboratively undertake complicated, multi-step processes more autonomously.

Social Emotional Intelligence

A renewed focus on social and emotional intelligence is reshaping the landscape of AI agent experiences. Going beyond mere task completion, these agents can interact with empathy and understanding. This shift can enable more intimate, meaningful connections between users and AI agents. Unlike earlier iterations that lacked nuance and emotional depth, contemporary AI agents leverage both advanced algorithms and multisensory interactions to understand and respond appropriately to human emotions. An AI’s emotional intelligence lets agents recognize social cues and interpret human feelings, enabling them to respond in ways that foster a trusted personal connection.

Human Relationships with Social AI

Human relationships thrive on emotional principles, societal norms, and ever-changing personal connections and preferences. Recognizing their fluid nature, social AI demands a fresh approach to product design that moves beyond static user interfaces toward dynamic relationship patterns within AI-enabled products that align with ethical and social rules. The success of social AI products requires the critical new discipline of relationship design, which strives for harmonious, emotionally resonant human-agent interactions. Relationship design requires an understanding of societal norms, ensuring that user interfaces resonate with cultural sensitivities, avoid biases, and foster inclusivity.

What to do:

  1. Define rich agent personas, characters, and expressions, extending products’ ability to achieve more embodied customer experiences.
  2. Engage in relationship design to create agent interactions that align with social contracts and guide emotional sensitivity and social actions.
  3. Conduct research on how hyperpersonalization can provide dynamic functions that drive unique, personal value for users in real time.

4. Doing Good: Ensuring Value with Responsible AI

Doing Good emphasizes the active commitment to use AI ethically and responsibly to create positive impacts. It promotes transparent, fair, and inclusive AI practices to benefit society, while mitigating risks and biases, ensuring that AI contributes to the greater good. Companies must move beyond platitudes to implementing real strategies and standards.

Governments, academia, and businesses have all awakened to the reality that AI offers immense upsides, but has equally significant downside risks. When left unchecked or in the wrong hands, the potential for catastrophic harm and malice is increasingly possible. Conversations and debates about AI policy abound. We have also seen multiple internal business initiatives that are focusing on defining guidelines for responsible AI. However, despite this positive momentum, real policy—whether public or private—has not yet been implemented as a standard. Responsible AI requires more than commitment. We must take action and make active contributions to the greater good.

Transparency and Explainability

As AI advances, two significant trends—transparency and explainability—are shaping the ethical and practical considerations of AI’s development. Transparent AI aims to make decision-making processes more visible. Developers are incorporating tools and techniques to provide users with a clear view of the details of AI models, fostering trust and accountability. Transparency recognizes the need for clear explanations of AI-driven decisions and strives to make AI outcomes understandable to nonexpert users. Transparency and explainability are rapidly becoming integral to ethical AI development. We must balance sophisticated AI models with positive and expected outcomes and continually refine them to ensure responsible and accountable AI-driven products.

Policy in Action

Companies need to move beyond superficial commitments and actively integrate ethical strategies and guidelines into their development process. Despite growing awareness of AI’s potentially negative impacts, many companies are quick to adopt these technologies without thoroughly evaluating their security implications or long-term consequences. It is imperative that companies prioritize ethical considerations such as transparency, fairness, accountability, and inclusivity throughout the AI lifecycle. This requires rigorous testing for biases, ensuring robust data privacy and security measures, providing clear explanations of AI decisions, and actively engaging stakeholders and other experts in ongoing ethical discussions. By implementing comprehensive ethical strategies, companies can build trust, mitigate risks, and ensure that AI technologies contribute positively to societal well-being.

Human Ethics with Responsible AI

Today, product teams must not only consider the individual user but also the broader societal and global impacts of their solutions. AI systems can have far-reaching consequences, affecting not just the immediate user but also communities, societies, and even world dynamics. In essence, the social and global impacts of AI necessitate a holistic approach to UX design, integrating considerations of ethics, fairness, inclusivity, and sustainability into every stage of a human-centered AI design process. This shift underscores the evolving role that UX designers must play in shaping a future in which AI technologies contribute positively to society while minimizing potential risks and harms.

What to do:

  1. Create digital spaces that foster conversations between content and product creators and users.
  2. Invest in organizational transparency by acknowledging the risks that new AI systems and experiences involve.
  3. Consider equity and diversity in product creation, user experiences, and outcomes. Share your insights with user councils and others.

Designing a More Conscious Future

As the implications of conscious AI continue to unfold, it is evident that companies and UX designers must evolve and adapt both their products and operations to align with the four key dimensions of the conscious AI transformation: cognitive, sensory, social, and responsible AI.

Digital products are transforming into more conscious, dynamic entities that can coexist with people. Therefore, we must guide this evolution in ways that prioritize humanity’s interests. Although AI offers immense opportunities for wealth creation and competitive advantage, it also necessitates both our understanding its alignment with human goals and responsible management to safeguard the people it serves.

Consciously embracing AI is imperative for countries, companies, communities, and individuals as they navigate its potential uses and implications. By adopting AI with foresight and responsibility, we can harness its power to drive positive societal outcomes while mitigating potential risks. 

Managing Partner at Punchcut

San Francisco, California, USA

Ken OlewilerKen was a co-founder of Punchcut and has driven the company’s vision, strategy, and creative direction for over 20 years—from the company’s inception as the first mobile-design consultancy to its position today as a design accelerator for business growth and transformation. Punchcut works with many of the world’s top companies—including Samsung, LG, Disney, Nissan, and Google—to envision and design transformative product experiences in wearables, smart home Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and extended reality (XR). As a UX leader and entrepreneur, Ken is a passionate advocate for a human-centered approach to design and business. He believes that design is all about shaping human’s relationships with products in ways that create sustainable value for people and businesses. He studied communication design at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.  Read More

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