Robots are becoming fashion designers now

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US clothing company markets itself as AI-driven. But what does that mean? Josie Adams discovers it for IRL.

I started getting ads for clothes that don’t exist. There are digitally rendered dresses all over my Instagram timeline that look like they were pulled from the next season of Euphoria, but according to the website selling them, they weren’t actually made. Delicacya US-based fashion company, uses artificial intelligence to make clothes on exact demand – without overstocking.

Finesse uses AI to predict trends in the fashion industry, then creates 3D models of the designs it thinks are trending. These designs are placed on the website as a showcase for the next delivery – customers can choose the design that interests them the most, and the designs that get the most clicks are basically voted on.

This isn’t the first time a fashion house has used AI. H&M uses it to forecast demand and thus improve its supply chain, and Zara uses it in robots that work with his inventory. Many industries use AI to streamline processes: Jetstar has an AI chatbot to help you troubleshoot, and Netflix uses it to offer terrible movie suggestions. What Finesse seems to represent is a conceptual shift: AI is not a substantive business assistant, it is a selling point. It’s fashionable, but apparently more durable – all thanks to machines. But how sophisticated are these machines really?

A 3D modeled collection of Finesse.

Alex Bartley Catt, chief executive of Auckland-based AI firm Spacetime, says using AI as a selling point could work because it’s more of a concept than a technology specific. “AI is understood more as a cultural and marketing term,” he says. “And it’s a catch-all term for a lot of different technologies that do interesting things with data.” That’s what Spacetime does: refresh things with data, sold under the generic term “AI”. Spacetime customers use chatbots to reduce call center load, natural language search engines to create enterprise Googles, and robotic process automation to perform data entry work.

Recently, Spacetime’s client, Fine Wine Delivery, requested something more customer-oriented: a “wheel of flavorswhich selects your perfect bottle of wine. According to Catt, New Zealand companies are still primarily focused on using AI in the background of their business. “They’re looking for efficiency, they’re looking to automate things,” he says. “It’s only when you have really visionary entrepreneurs, like Jeff Poole of Fine Wine Delivery, that you really start putting this stuff in front of customers.”

While Fine Wine Delivery is open to using AI at the client level, fashion houses are still using it in the backend; it looks like Finesse isn’t doing anything different, it’s just talking about it more. Finesse’s AI is all about predicting trends. You might think it would be difficult to predict trends in a subjective field like fashion, but apparently not. Finesse founder and CEO Ramin Ahmari described the stock market as “much more unpredictable” than fashion.

A daily flood of #OOTD on social media means AI technology can analyze what the cool kids are wearing and spit out predictions: butterfly tops are on the rise. A human mind can look at these predictions and decide whether they make sense or not. It seems that Finesse outsources this step to some extent by asking customers to vote for their favorite designs.

Alex Bartley Catt, chief executive of the artificial intelligence company Spacetime. (Photo: provided)

“It might also sound a little cliché, and like I’m trying to cover myself up, but the best outcome today will always be a collaboration between man and machine,” says Catt. “AI can be much better than humans, especially when reading X-ray exams and looking up that stuff, but context is where AI always loses.” This is where humans remain superior: context. An AI can tell you there is a chair in the room, but only a human can tell you why the chair is there and who might sit in it. And in a fashion house, a human has to be there to say yes, butterfly tops really are a good idea.

That’s good news: Finesse is not proof that robots are taking jobs from our fashion designers. Although Spacetime has yet to dive into the fashion industry, they have done plenty of other projects. “Nobody’s ever lost a job,” says Catt. All that happens is an upgrade. “This person goes from manually entering data to watching over their army of robots doing it for them and solving problems as they arise.”

But will robots ever solve their own problems, and will humanity be seen as a problem? We won’t lose our jobs, but could we lose our way of life? “It’s a matter of time,” says Catt. “We are just a long way from that.”

We are still at a relatively early stage of AI in the workplace. We can ask Alexa to give us a pop quiz, but we can’t have a conversation with it. We can ask DALL-E2 to draw us a picture, but it can’t tell you if the image is good or bad. And while futuristic-looking clothing brands may be using AI as a marketing ploy, they’re not actually using cutting-edge technology that could wipe out fashion designers or life as we know it. Man and machine still need each other – and probably will for some time to come.

I watch Catt play with his airpods on the Google Meet screen. “I think we’re sort of cyborgs already in the sense that we’re still on computers, still staring at screens, still have our phones with us, and it’s controlling us in ways that we don’t even understand and don’t don’t understand.”

There may be a tipping point when the machines no longer need us, but the fashion industry does not.

Public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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