By Mukyala Cynthia Clare
Cynthia Clare Mukyala is an Architectural Designer (Part I- RIBA), graduate of Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi. Above all, she loves concepts, taking project data such as building site conditions and client needs to develop strategic concepts for the overall design; with problem-solving as her main goal. She believes in architecture as both an art and a science—a multidisciplinary vocation with various dimensions such as psychology, sociology, human experience, construction, materials, etc. Therefore, until AI can automate art, creativity and innovation, the role of an architect continues to be relevant.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been a mark in technology advancement in the 21st Century. With every advancement in technology, what we work on and how we work changes. Machines become more and more able to do the work faster and even more efficiently than human beings. Human labour is therefore displaced and reshuffled. Artificial Intelligence machines have abilities such as visual perception, speech recognition, and decision-making that normally requires human intelligence. In architectural practice, AI has the potential to make work easier and more efficient with features such as ‘Big data’, Parametric Design, BMI, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Robot crafters. In addition, AI will change the scope of work as smart systems and how they are experienced by users become a part of the considerations in design. However, among creatives, there is rising concern that AI will take their place. This article discusses the impact of Artificial Intelligence on architectural practice and whether it is possible that AI will replace architects.
From the days of the early caveman to our present day in the 21st Century, human beings have been involved in production as a means of survival; to thrive; to feed; for shelter; for clothing and civilisation. And just as human beings have evolved, so have the means of production. The past centuries saw the revolutonalisation of production systems that featured the Industrial Revolution (18th-19th Century), the Digital Revolution (mid-20th Century), and currently, the “Industry 4.0”. The “Industry 4.0” marks a shift from the ‘digital era’ of the 1990s and 2000s to a period where the physical world and the digital world are merged and working symbiotically with each other. It features technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) the Internet of Things (IoT), Robotics, Block Chain etc. It goes without saying that with every shift and advancement in technology, human labour is displaced and new roles come in demand. The machines are more and more able to do the work faster and even more efficiently than human beings. The question now: Who will be displaced and who will remain relevant?
To put you up to speed, Artificial Intelligence is a computer system that is able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. This means that AI machines are advancing beyond formerly simple machine abilities, and now are able to process, analyse, respond, and create just like a human being. They are, in fact, majoring in many professional fields that require intelligence, creativity and critical thinking.
2.0 POTENTIAL OF AI VERSUS A HUMAN INTELLIGENCE
In architectural practice, AI has the potential to make work easier and more efficient. AI is still far from its full potential. However, it is developing fast and in future it will grow even more powerful, making it even more valuable. When you look as far into the future as 2050, at the anticipated “singularity” moment in AI, human intelligence and AI merge. Human intelligence will experience an extensive integration with AI, forming an interdependent relationship where AIs are complemented by human talent for creative thinking; and human beings will be complemented by AI’s memory and rapid computing. We can only imagine the kind of the design that can come out of this kind of integration. We might begin to create designs we do not yet have the capacity to fathom.
Meanwhile, take the case of an architect starting out on a new project. They spend countless hours on research about various parameters that affect the project. These may include factors such as climate and weather, soils, zoning data, material ratings, case studies, etc. AI comes in quite handy at this point because of its ability to take in vast amounts of data in a short time, wielding its massive processing power. It has the ability to utilise tons of previous data in a millisecond: collecting, combining and sharing “big data” along with research, analysis, analytics and computations. This means that with an AI system, an architect could pull all zoning data and building codes and generate design variations that follow a given design language. The burden of research is then taken off the architect and they can now focus on the work of creating and innovating. In addition, offices can share ideas and projects across the board rather than the traditional emailing between firms and clients. Environmental sustainability can also be built right into the design with solutions such as smart-lighting or smart-stormwater management systems being worked direct into blueprints.
Another way AI will simplify the work of architects is increasing workflow with software such as those that allow Parametric design. It is a design system that allows architects to play with various building and design parameters to create various outputs of forms and structures. A Parametric design system uses geometric programming and algorithms to allow architects to reshape a building and optimize it to fit their needs. Architects are able to set constraints, plug in data, and create countless iterations of a building within minutes. With a tool like this an architect can be free to play, think and create while the Parametric system does the menial work. And with BIM (Building Information Modelling), things move even faster. BIM can work with other programmes to give the architect a complete picture of the building including everything from concept design to maintenance and operation making the planning process easier and faster.
AI also has the potential to improve overall client satisfaction. With technologies such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, clients will be able to walk through a structure before it is built. Clients can have real-world experience with their proposed building without having to break ground. It is possible to simulate everything from aesthetics to sounds, and feedback can be implemented into the design immediately—before money has been spent on materials or construction.
When it comes to construction, AI can actually construct something with little or no manpower. Picture a world where robots work in teams to build structures, drones fly overhead and scan the site, sending instructions to robotic cranes and diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement. The “builder” then becomes an “overseer” and projects can be remotely managed. This world is coming and is already with us; in the not-so-far future. Some companies already have machines that can do some of the repetitive construction tasks such as bricklaying, concrete pouring, demolition and 3D printing tools— “robot crafters” that can construct every detail of the project from nothing. AI can also predict overflows by using factors such as project size, and competence and the skill of project managers to make its calculations and create cost estimates. It can also analyse sites and identify potential risk factors, decreasing safety hazards and the delays they might cause. However, it is worth noting that in terms of appreciation for craft, we are likely to lose the “human touch” and the haptic qualities of construction.
AI will not only transform the productivity of architects but also reframe the scope of design. Besides thinking about wiring and plumbing like they did before, they will have to also consider the smart systems of our living environments such as cities and homes. When smart cities and smart homes become ubiquitous, it is inevitable that the new technology and system will have to go into consideration. With smart cities, a major task of the architect will be to understand how a city flows. Smart cities will be places driven by real-time data and feedback, communicating with themselves like a living organism. The buildings, smartphones, cars, and public places will communicate with each other to improve living conditions, limit waste, increase safety, and limit traffic. This trend already exists in some of the world’s most advanced cities like Singapore and London. With smart homes, the architect will have to think about how AI could enhance the user experience. Smart homes, just like the smart cities will be complex living data-driven organisms. A smart home has appliances and devices that can be automatically controlled remotely from anywhere with an Internet connection using a mobile or other networked device. Users will be able to control functions such as security access to the home and lighting remotely. Smart home appliances also come with self-learning skills so they can learn the user’s schedules and make adjustments as needed. As an architect, the challenge will be how to fit AI into the design of a home.
3.0 WILL ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE REPLACE ARCHITECTS?
According to The Economist, 47% of the work done by humans will have been replaced by robots by 2037, even those traditionally associated with university education. These jobs will be lost as “artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and other socio-economic factors replace the need for human employees”. When you think about past generations, during the 20th century, several businesses and professions emerged and disappeared as new technologies developed and got adapted. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, however, believes “AI is just the latest in technologies that allow us to produce a lot more goods and services with less labour”. The implication is that not only will people be displaced, but how we work, and what we can work on, will change; all work will be shaped by AI before 2050.
In the creative industry, AI adoption has pros and cons. Some designers are concerned about their role being taken up by AI. And considering that the aim of AI is to create machines or software capable of self-direction and learning, this concern is valid. The idea of “robot architects” taking over the jobs of the real architects raises many discussions about the future of architectural practice. One would imagine that clients will soon be able to tell software what kind of building they want, style and preferences, size, location and budget, and get a variety of options in no time. They might even be able to move things around in augmented reality, see how they fit and take on what fits within their budget. The software would then recommend a contractor or even robot contractors to build the project.
However, architecture requires intense collaboration; and has an emotional aspect that cannot be interpreted by computers. A computer cannot tell when a client is happy or when a contractor disagrees with a decision. Computers are not good at open-ended creative solutions; that is still reserved for human beings. They can only solve what they already know. Architecture is a multi-disciplinary practice that engages the architect on various aspects of human living such as psychology, user-needs and experience, “implicit” individual preferences, social needs, circulation; artistic aspects such as proportions, balance, contrast, patterns, concepts, themes and scientific aspects such as building materials and their alternatives, and strengths, all encompassed within the fact that design should be innovative. AI systems in the end still depend on inputs collected by humans to function properly.
In addition, according to The Telegraph newspaper (2013), architects have one of the lowest replacement rates (1.8%), in a comfortable position with stylists (2.1%), aerospace engineers (1.7%), curators (0.7%) microbiologists (1.2%), theatrical makeup artists (1%), anthropologists (0.8%) and choreographers (0.4%). What these roles have in common is that they require a high level of human interaction, creativity, a dynamic multi-disciplinary approach, and have a low percentage of repetitive tasks. They will be the last to be replaced, but there will also be new roles required necessary to monitor and coordinate intelligent machines and systems.
As technology evolves, it serves as a tool to assist architects; and as it evolves, architects too need to shift; but it will only solve a small piece of the puzzle. Artificial intelligence with its human-like abilities will eliminate tedious, repetitive activities, optimising the production of technical material which implies that each time fewer architects are needed to develop more complex projects. For example, you do not need to pay for people to decide where the plumbing will go. This makes it easier for small firms to compete for ambitious projects because they can focus on the art and design. It will alleviate architects of various burdensome tasks that come in the way of creativity like research, drawing and menial construction work. And when smart cities become common, the scope of work for architects will change as well. But until computers can automate creativity and innovation as well as reproduce the design-creative and human touch, the role of an architect will continue to be relevant.
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