Rohit Talwar: how will AI shape the future of architecture?

As Artificial Intelligence removes as many as half of jobs in the future, architecture’s role and the use of space will change fundamentally

The arrival of artificial intelligence (AI) is set to have a major impact on the future of architecture and design, as a significant proportion of the built environment that has (up to now) been designed for people-centred activities (offices, shopping centres, banks, factories, schools) may in the next 10-20 years house 50 per cent or less workers and have far fewer physical customers or users. Furthermore, with the rise of AI, some organisations might run on algorithm alone, with literally no human staff.

The future of jobs is not just about employment but about larger societal shifts, with dramatic impact on the use of space and resources. Indeed AI is increasingly likely to provide a meta-level management layer — collating data from a variety of sources to monitor and control every aspect of the built environment and the use of resources within it.

The coming wave of AI in business and society will fundamentally affect the future design, use and management of buildings. Key design features, including construction, security, monitoring and maintenance, could become coordinated by highly automated AI neural networks. Future office buildings might make intelligent responses to their users’ moods or feelings to increase productivity of humans in the organisation — varying lighting, temperature, background music, ambient smells and even digital wallpaper displays according to the motivational needs of each worker.

In the post-work, shared-infrastructure economy, architects may well also find themselves involved in ‘multipurposing’ design of new buildings and in the remodelling of existing ones. Why couldn’t schools double as courtrooms, doctor’s surgeries, social centres, libraries and so on in the evenings and during holidays?

Retail and education will continue to move online and buildings will need to work much harder, and if people continue to migrate to the cities, empty space becomes more and more of a liability. In the USA, up to 1,000 retail outlets a week are being closed.

A Texas firm has suggested a design for old shopping malls and retail outlets as drone ports; other options might include repurposing them as maker spaces, community centres, pop-up cafes and adult-learning outlets. The pace of automation of retail and commerce is likely to be exponential: imagine a chatbot that could coordinate drone deliveries of the groceries ordered by web-connected smart refrigerators that run on IBM’s Watson AI platform. Intuitive and predictive, AI seems set to revolutionise the home and business.

As advances in the cognitive sciences accelerate, there is also a growing fascination with the idea of neuro-architecture as a control mechanism in a post-work society: will mass automation and efficiency expectations justify new buildings that are responsive to people’s needs, read moods, use biometrics, and conduct behaviour-conditioning of workers? There are several reasons to think these strategies could become accepted practice.

Many AI analysts argue that, rather than compete with robots, humans will do more meaningful and more important work than ever. Hence the use of building design to evoke certain feelings, enhance moods and creativity, and the use of behavioural insights to motivate the workforce, could provide an important advantage in the new ‘cobot’ norm of humans working alongside intelligent robots.

As work becomes automated it also becomes more cloud based and fewer offices need the amount of space they once did or for the purposes space once served. New uses of space to accommodate virtual AI workers and to provide a comfortable environment for human workers will be in demand.

Furthermore, replacing actual workers with code means that the layout, design and supplies necessary for the typical office will completely change. The role of AI in reducing the amount of people and ‘stuff’ that places must accommodate should open up considerable opportunities for building redesign.

Designing to a post-job future doesn’t necessarily mean that high-tech has the advantage. There will be valuable opportunities to inject a touch of humanity to key settings where people will interact with AI — work, home and public spaces. The rise of AI means we must consider different visions of the future where 50 per cent or more of the workforce is automated out of a job and the new sectors haven’t taken up all the displaced individuals. With the right perspective, positive design adjustments can help make the post-work future meaningful and more human. However, the transition will be challenging for all concerned.

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