Artificial intelligence could potentially help us streamline the more rudimentary and tedious aspects of design to free up more time for creative problem solving and response to human needs. It would be unreasonable to say that any AI that we could conceive in our lifetime would be able to intimately familiarize itself with the breadth of human experience to allow it to make accurate determinations about the things we need. Oftentimes the things we need are rooted in aesthetics that are meant to facilitate our emotional well-being or they are otherwise rooted in cultural lineages and traditions that are difficult as yet to quantify.
It is obvious that with more precise data, and with the use of more intelligent software, architects and designers will be able to enhance their work in many predictable ways such as optimizing building maintenance and security, streamlining BIM workflow, and increasing the sustainability of a design through more accurate environmental analysis. Having said this, I feel that the notion of having better tools allowing you to do your job better and faster is not necessarily worth discussing. What is of interest is whether or not improving these tools will eventually make their very users obsolete by becoming the users themselves. From this, it’s important to consider what makes humans particularly useful (as users of these tools).
The threat is actually posed not by artificial intelligence itself but by users who deem AI to be a cheaper, more efficient means to an end.
What makes a thing intelligent is not only access to data but also the ability to identify connections between disparate pieces of information and use those connections to solve problems — to develop intuition. The way we identify connections between bits of data as humans is by working within certain logical frameworks that allow us to create a relationship between things that would otherwise feel random and/or arbitrary. For example, one such framework is cause and effect. You know not to look directly at the sun because it hurts your eyes when you do that. A connection was drawn between the action and the subsequent pain that informed the newly-developed behavior that followed.
Architects spend several years developing skills that give them a heightened degree of spatial awareness. Beyond that, many are also skilled at bridging gaps between their lived experience, their ability to identify sociocultural cues and traditions (humans are particularly skilled at this because we are the only species that places sentimental value onto objects, as far as our current understanding goes) and their technical skills in order to come up with clever solutions to a specific set of problems. For better or for worse, a designer’s individualism seeps through when they make decisions that influence the emotional impact of space using their lived experiences — their memories — as a basis.
For the same reason that it is difficult to imagine fully relating to another human being because your lived experiences are fundamentally different, it is difficult to imagine how digital intelligences would begin to develop a sense of ego and then use that to make aesthetic choices about a space. If that were to happen, the point would essentially be moot because we would come to a point where it would be redundant to distinguish between supposedly “real” humanity and a synthetic one. It wouldn’t be a matter of asking what the future of architecture and design looks like under the influence of AI because AI would not exist — human intelligence and artificial intelligence would essentially be the same, and so any useful distinction (those that look beyond the pedantic notion of humans being made from organic matter as opposed to AI, which is created with synthetic material) will probably cease to exist. Would AI eventually reach a point where designers become obsolete? Probably not until we reach a level of sophistication with AI that is indistinguishable from our own complexity, but in that case, it wouldn’t be a matter of AI vs. designers, it would simply mean that there are more designers.
Architects and designers should aim to liberalize pertinent data so that anybody can have access to them.
An example of how AI is already integrated in architecture can be seen at The Bartlett, wherein their space syntax software “depthmapX” can generate accurate spatial analyses that remove the need to actually visit the site. Granted, there is as yet no way for such a software to tell you, for instance, how a certain place “feels” or how culturally significant certain elements at a site are, but any physical or spatial data that can be quantified is still perfectly fair game. This not actually limited to just environmental analysis. In much the same way that analytics companies gather our social and behavioral data to essentially generate profiles on us to create more successful marketing campaigns, in an architectural setting, this data can be used to democratize development. With this data, software may be able to prioritize certain projects, calculate population growth and categorize streets or neighborhoods by usage and density (and then further categorize those things into time of day).
Still more interesting integrations of AI in architecture can be seen in an installation called Ada as part of Microsoft’s Artist in Residence program. Ada is a pavilion that incorporates AI to generate a performative environment based on analyses of its users. It collects data from facial expressions and vocal tones and translates that data into certain colors and materials based on specific sentiments that it perceives from this data. What it becomes is this vehicle for a uniquely responsive architecture that allows designers to expand their conceptualization process to encompass not only what a certain building or space must be but also what it could be. The question that arises here is how this data is being perceived and translated by the AI and who programs it to perceive things in this way — and these things are determined by a variety of cultural and social biases. Perhaps the challenge will come from attempting to get the AI to understand certain illogical human behaviors that are rooted in cultural stigma such as Americans’ preference for private vehicles over robust public transportation networks and infrastructure. Logic isn’t standardized because culture and experience inform a person’s idea of what is logical.
Logic isn’t standardized because culture and experience inform a person’s idea of what is logical.
The threat is actually posed not by artificial intelligence itself but by users who deem AI to be a cheaper, more efficient means to an end. As we are encouraged to indulge in our consumerist tendencies, we become less concerned with creating spaces that we can emotionally connect to and see ourselves in and more about acquiring material things. In this case, it is about acquiring four walls and a roof as quickly and efficiently as possible. While it is indeed possible for architectural firms to adapt to this and begin implementing AI technologies to help them fill in gaps in their output (such as Ada or depthmapX), larger companies that have an edge in gathering data (especially if that data is deemed proprietary) will have negative influences on the competitive environment of the field.
In order to prevent the consolidation of an immense amount of decision-making power in the hands of a small group of already resource-rich entities, architects and designers should aim to liberalize pertinent data so that anybody can have access to them. Data sets should be available for public use and perhaps managed by an international body. We see this occurring more and more frequently in the design world through the emergence of open-source programs, plans, and data such as Wheelmap, which is an urbanism platform designed to help people identify and share accessible spaces around the world. Decentralizing design in this way may prove beneficial to society as a whole by giving more people greater access to quality design that is most often reserved for people with the capital to access the finest pieces.
It would be prudent for architects to reflect on how they can synthesize the more intangible aspects of their skill sets in order to be more equipped to navigate these rapidly shifting environments.
Sebastian Errazuriz has a rather bleak — albeit realistic — perspective regarding the impact of AI on the architecture industry. Approaching it purely from a brass tacks perspective, architects are largely expendable mainly because they take a lot of time and resources to get equipped with the skills needed to become architects. Beyond that, the level of coordination between all these different entities makes it so that it’s normal for projects to take 2, 3, or even 10 years to finish. How could any of that possibly compete with a program that is unbiased and unburdened by ego, that can learn anything in a matter of seconds, and that can communicate and coordinate with other equally egoless programs with complete fluidity (more fluidly than we can even communicate with our own selves). His suggestion is that architects should take their advanced spatial awareness and apply it in a tech landscape wherein they would apply their skills more abstractly to design other kinds of systems.
As with almost every other profession, architects are on the precipice of a reckoning with their roles in society moving forward. This is mainly due to the fact that we recognize that AI isn’t just a tool — it has the potential to eventually surpass our ability to do anything. What is particularly new about this is that it will cause us to fundamentally re-evaluate our relationship with our labor, and what our role in society will be if our ability (or even our need) to work is taken away. While it may not necessarily be a matter of the utmost urgency, it would be prudent for architects to reflect on how they can synthesize the more intangible aspects of their skill sets in order to be more equipped to navigate these rapidly shifting environments.