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How AI Is Playing A Role In Nike Development

Until a couple of years ago, mention of artificial intelligence (AI) would tend to stir up notions of super-smart cyborgs that would take over the world and destroy humanity, a theme first explored in popular culture back in the 1980s when the Terminator films came out.

Now, however, AI is less about SkyNet and Arnold Schwarzenegger on a motorbike than the widespread exploration of how these tools can be used. This ranges from serious stuff to do with diagnosing diseases by spotting patterns in medical scans a human might overlook, to some fun stuff with AI images trying to imagine futuristic buildings and cities.

The role AI might play in the design of high-tech sports footwear is something a lot of people might not have considered.

Of course, anyone keen on getting their hands on a pair of limited edition Nike trainers will be very aware of some of the design features and symbols that make them stand out, from the unique parts to the recurring themes. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into developing new trainers, each one adding something a little different or new.

The Role Of AI At Nike

Various developments in manufacturing and design technology have enhanced this process over the years, but now, Dezeen reports, Nike is taking the next step and using AI.

Chief innovation officer John Hoke told the news agency that the company is using a Large Language Model (LLM), a kind of text-based AI system that can recognise language patterns in much the same way as ChatGPT. He said that while Nike already uses the LLMs that are already in existence, it is developing its own in-house.

He explained: "It's a little bit of thinking about developing a private garden, of looking at our own datasets that are exclusive to Nike - so performance data from an athlete, from our laboratories, et cetera.”

This would enable shoes to be developed with a combination of applying the in-house LLM to such data and whatever else can be learned from the “public garden”, he added.

A Decade Of Development

As it happens, Mr Hoke was speaking to Dezeen in Paris, where Nike was unveiling its collection for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. You might conclude that this range will have come out too early for AI design systems to have an impact - but you shouldn’t.

In fact, Nike’s use of AI in design has been gradually emerging over the last few years as the technology has advanced.

For example, a report by Emero in 2021 noted that Nike had been using AI in techniques like data mining and analytics, as well as working to find the right fit for customers. The latter has been possible using a Nike app that, since 2019, has been able to tailor the shape and fit of its products beyond the traditional one-dimensional ‘shoe size’ system.

However, another report in 2022, by Hero, revealed how AI had actually been used in some form by Nike for over a decade.

It highlighted how it was now being used to help design Nike shoes, alongside other cutting-edge technology like virtual reality. This was used to create the Air Max Scorpion. Among the most significant things about this was that the use of new technology enabled the Scorpion to be developed through remote collaboration during the pandemic.

Speaking about the role of AI in design, Nike’s vice president of footwear product design Andy Caine said: “For more than a decade, we’ve combined human and machine intelligence here at Nike to lead design to new places and create the future of sport. “

He added: “With Scorpion specifically, AI helped us identify the optimal traction pattern for the sole.”

The next step, he stated, was to use machine learning to help find the “perfect colour formulation for the airbag more quickly and with a lot less guesswork”.

What AI Means For The Future Of Nike Collectibles

All this tells us that the use of AI in creating Nike footwear is well established and, the firm’s developers appear certain, it will play an important role in creating even better footwear in the future.

None of that will take away the appeal of vintage Nike collectibles from down the years, but it is also worth thinking that in the future, the shoes people will want to collect will be editions developed with the help of AI.

So if you still think of AI as being something to do with Terminator, you might just consider that of all the times the Terminator turned up naked and took someone else’s clothes he never took their Nikes. Perhaps that is because his cyborg ancestors helped design them in the first place.

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