It is a truth universally acknowledged that automation will find a way into each one of our lives in some way. In fact, it is already doing so. Something as basic as using a smartphone or an ATM means that artificial intelligence is helping to make that task easier. Never mind the fact that landlines are a rare occurrence now or STD booths are almost entirely obsolete. Who needs the rusty old bank teller when a machine can do the job in seconds? Humans have embraced robotics in a way that has revolutionized every aspect of our lives; where a panel conducted in 2017 by The Economist saw researchers agreeing that 47% of the work humans do will be taken over by robots by 2037, another study by the World Economic Forum found that approximately 7.1 million jobs could have been lost around the world between 2015-2020 owing to automation of menial tasks across industries. With unemployment crises around the globe staring us in the face, architects too fear their mass extinction in the near future. Or maybe they needn’t.
The truth is quite the opposite if history is any indication of mankind’s evolutionary patterns. Humans have outlived many other resilient species owing to their potent ability to innovate and adapt. When we look back to times as recent as a few centuries before, the majority of mankind was engaged in agriculture, with a significant minority involved in trading. As the technological dragon began rearing its head, the 1900s became dominated by advancements across industries. Transportation and coal sectors created new jobs that people had to be specifically trained for, as former field workers migrated to cities in search of better financial opportunities. The shift in employment did not happen overnight; this gradual process has undergone an evolution in its own right.
Now, with computers running the world, we can find people with interesting profiles all around us – graphic designers, social media managers, UI researchers, data scientists, videographers, and many more. All these roles have 2 things in common: they have evolved from rudimentary titles into skilled specializations over time, and they are born due to technological advancements. On the other hand, architecture has been around longer than modern computers. Long before drafting or visualization software existed, people built monumental structures. One glance at the Roman & Egyptian civilizations gives sufficient proof of what a sound understanding of mathematics, physics, and design principles can accomplish. Architects of today are no doubt heavily reliant on design software, but it is important to understand that these are tools to speed up processes of design and are nowhere advanced enough to substitute the reasoning capacity of a human mind.
Take Generative Design for example; big software companies like Autodesk & Revit have devised software tools that can calculate every possible solution to a design problem, but fall short of being able to analyze which option would work best for the respective context. Architects do much more than process requirements; they curate the experience of the space, by working out qualitative aspects of design such as light, air circulation, aesthetics, material finishes, etc. While software may eventually become sophisticated enough to develop critical thinking, it is yet in the nascent stages and could take decades before being considered as competition to architects. Technological companies are well aware of these limitations; design tools are marketed as aids and not as potential contenders to an architect’s job.
Another reason architecture is far from being robotized is that a large part of the job requires emotional intelligence that machines lack. Even if the design process could become entirely automated, delicate aspects such as client discussions and team coordination would need human skill. A robot would hardly know the correct response to a disgruntled client or disagreeable contractor. There is also the business facet of architecture that centers around legal & money matters. While programs that balance accounts & draw up iron-clad contracts make laborious tasks effortless, the architect would need to go through the resulting data and make carefully considered decisions to manage his/her practice. The ability to negotiate and rationalize is at the core of why architects have one of the least replaceable jobs in the world. A 2013 research from the University of Oxford claimed that architects have less than a 1.8% chance of being automated in the next two decades as compared to telemarketers, accountants, or even taxi drivers, who are all more than 80% at risk of becoming obsolete within the next 10 years!
On the other side, recent statistics suggest that the demand for architects has gone up over the last 25 years as awareness about the profession increases and the rising middle class creates a market for affordable & sustainable design solutions. Architects needn’t worry for now; although they are far from being replaced entirely, the industry itself is undergoing a continuous transformation thanks to technology. Research & development across diverse software applications ensures that tasks that require zero to little thinking are handled by smart tools. While human intelligence caters to more demanding matters, artificial intelligence intervention is present where necessary and this symbiotic collaboration gives architects great flexibility & optimization when designing complex projects.
Artificial intelligence will no doubt be much more advanced in the future – as we create robots that hear, speak and respond to us, we are sure to program machines that can deduce optimal floor plans or draft construction details within minutes. However, automation in architecture is not defined by the computers’ ability, but their inability. Architecture is a vocation that goes beyond science & math; it touches on art, psychology, and interpersonal skills. It is the expertise & sensitivity possessed by an architect that is yet to be replicated in a machine. This is why architecture, like other arts, is yet far from being automated; even when it does, it is unlikely to entirely take the form of a machine. A more realistic concept would be of an android that combines a computer’s efficiency with a designer’s competency at its core. Until the sharpest minds in the world create such a being, the job of an architect will continue to be integral to our society and a human brain integral to the architect.
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ArchDaily. (2021). Will Robots Ever Replace Architects? Why Designs of the Future Won’t Ever be Fully Automated. [online] Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/962591/will-robots-ever-replace-architects-why-designs-of-the-future-wont-ever-be-fully-automated [Accessed 3 Oct. 2021].