On the Responsibility of Makers

By Gorm Lai (Twitter,Website)

This September I’ll be starting a PhD at Goldsmiths in London as part of the IGGI programme. I am going to research algorithms that can empower more people to become character artists and animators through the use of procedural tools. When I excitedly tell my artist friends in the games industry about this I often get the reply :”So are you going to take my job away?” Even though it is meant as a friendly and funny remark, we all see how automated tools transform and change not only our industry, but nearly all parts of 21st century society.

As makers of something that makes something, we participate in bringing of some of that aforementioned change. Whether it is a procedural terrain generator to empower game developers to make more or higher quality content faster or someone constructing 3D printers to build houses, the change that we bring, affect the people in those businesses.

While procedural tools can be incredibly empowering, they also take work that was previously done manually, and transforms it, so the work is either fully automated or will require a different set of skills to perform. For an easy to understand example, think about building a house. Building a house requires the combined skills of many people; architects, engineers, plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters, painters, etc., but if we can 3D print an entire livable house, then we might be able to leave out the bricklayer and carpenter and we’ll instead need someone with a different set of skills to operate the 3D printing equipment. We will also need a modified supply chain for building materials, as instead of bricks, mortar and wood, we’ll need a supply of 3D printing materials.

While we can argue there are numerous advantages to 3D printing a house (a machine can work 24-hour days and it is much cheaper overall) or a procedural tool for game developers (it might be possible to knock up an interesting test level in minutes versus hours or even days), it is also possible that it will push some people out of the job market or at least require them to re-skill significantly to stay competitive.

Makers; whether they make medicine, cigarettes, guns, candy bars, self-driving cars or in our case, something that makes something, must take responsibility for their creation. If the creator of a gun or pack of cigarettes can be made accountable for its use, then so can a programmer for their software. That means if a piece of software allows someone to create something for the first time in their life because that software helps them to be creators or encourages a company to optimise their work processes, then both those cases bring change to society, and we are part responsible for that change.

We not only have to think about how people can best use our programs, but also the societal change that the software brings. If fewer artists are needed to make a game, what happens to those artists now? What about factory workers as we are able to make cars in an increasingly automated way or construction labour if 3D printed homes become more commonplace? Is it always realistic to retrain people to other jobs? If yes, who pays for the training? If no, then what does society do with those previously employed people? Is it sometimes better not to invent something that improves our lives in certain areas or optimises production flow, if it has the potential to be too disruptive in other areas?

I have a my own set of answers for those questions, but this essay is not about that. The intent is to spark a discussion and make us realise our wider responsibility as makers of something that makes something.