Will AI Replace Web Developers?

By BrainStation November 28, 2019
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With every advancement in artificial intelligence, more people begin to worry: are robots coming for my job? And certainly, Web Developers are among those most concerned about being replaced by AI.

BrainStation’s 2019 Digital Skills Survey found that 78 percent of Developers believe that AI and machine learning are the trends that would have the most impact on development over the next five to 10 years. Meanwhile, when Evans Data Corp polled 550 Developers on the most worrying aspects of their career, 29 percent – the most common response – were anxious about being replaced by AI

Perhaps that concern stems from the rise in popularity of AI-integrated website-building tools like Squarespace, Adobe Sensei, Bookmark, Firedrop, and Wix’s ADI, or from pessimistic studies like one from Oxford that forecast a 21 percent probability that the work of Web Developers could someday be automated.

And there are few who doubt that AI will change the work of Web Developers. But instead of seeing AI as a threat to replace Developers, many experts in the field, in fact, see artificial intelligence as a powerful tool that is making a Developer’s day-to-day work life easier and more efficient.

“I see AI as a tool that will augment and enrich a Web Developer’s arsenal, rather than stealing their job,” said BrainStation Instructor Dan O’Donnell.

“Broadly speaking, AI is great at replacing humans in tasks that allow ‘fuzzy’ outcomes where there is either no right answer, or it’s OK to get the wrong answer some of the time. On the other hand, where it is business-critical that things work as predictably as possible, discrete instructions written by human beings will continue to be the way to go.”

Can AI Work on Design? 

Digital design is widely viewed as too crucial a factor to leave up to AI Even beyond the myriad brand ramifications of bad design, a recent Vistaprint survey found that 42 percent of customers would be not very likely and 21 percent would be not likely at all to make a purchase from a website that they found to be poorly designed.

And some early forays into AI-designed websites didn’t inspire confidence. The CMS the Grid launched with significant hype, millions in VC funding and major promises, but when the design community began unearthing real-world examples of websites built with the platform, their reaction was mixed – and now, some in the community wonder if the site-builder still exists.

Even as other website builders like Wix and Squarespace have risen in popularity and sophistication, those tools and other trained models can’t quite replicate the work of a talented front-end developer.

“Trained AI models can certainly learn to produce beautiful and functional web layouts and even auto-generate robust code behind them. For a quick-and-easy website, this may be sufficient,” O’Donnell said.

“But if a designer wishes to make some very specific changes, or if something doesn’t look quite right on a particular screen, a human Developer will likely have to step in and re-code some or all of that layout manually. A similar argument can be made as to why front-end focused Developers have not been replaced by the likes of Wix or Squarespace.”

Back-End Development Needs a Human Touch

On the server-side, too, a human touch is needed.

“Back-end web development involves writing robust, bug-free code that performs discrete business-critical tasks like updating a user’s database record or processing a credit card transaction. These tasks need to be prescribed, reliable and repeatable; for these reasons, it is unlikely we’ll see many tech companies replacing their Web Developers and the code they write with AI models any time soon,” O’Donnell said.

But that isn’t to say that AI doesn’t have a prominent place in the future of web development and design.

As Silka Miesnieks, Adobe’s Head of Emerging Design, put it: “In most cases, AI only affects a percentage of a job a person does, but rarely the whole job. And if you free up workers to do more of the creative and other work they are good at, while leaving other tasks for AI, you can grow your organization.”

In other words, AI has the power to handle some of the banal, time-consuming tasks that waste Developers’ time on a daily basis. AI can save time by updating database records, performing simple image editing jobs, automatically adding numbers, and creating predictive coding to solve glitches, to name merely a few examples. According to a recent Capgemini’s 2018-19 World Quality Report, 57 percent of respondents also reported using AI for quality assurance and testing.

Other AI-driven innovations that are making the lives of web developers easier include Sketch2Code, which transforms hand-drawn designs into HTML, while Adobe Sensei uses AI and machine learning to help you unearth opportunities, offer personalized experiences, and speed up a number of time-consuming processes, including the ability to automatically add image descriptors, to score image quality on professional dimensions, and to automatically crop and mask images.

And website builders can be a good tool even if a human touch is ultimately required.

“Reliability and predictability are big parts of web development, but there are also a number of more subjective areas where AI can make a significant impact. As an example, a lot of great AI work is being done at the interface of web development and web design,” O’Donnell said.

“Even if a human Developer is required to fine-tune things, AI can certainly help minimize time and effort by taking care of the broad strokes.”

“Even on the server-side, AI can certainly play a role,” he added. “Back-end development still has a number of more subjective operational tasks most humans would happily give away to a machine.”

Those tasks, O’Donnell explains, include inspecting error logs, analyzing performance data, or even identifying what coding styles are likely to produce the most bugs.

“AI-driven advances in these areas will help web developers focus more on the task they enjoy doing most – writing code,” he said.

 

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