By Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington
What are the implications for architectural design of a world that may have fewer jobs?
All the discussion surrounding the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on jobs raises the question: What could dramatic shifts in employment patterns mean for the built environment? Firstly, a significant proportion of the built environment has up to now been designed for people-centered economic activities—offices, shopping centers, banks, factories, and schools. Over the next 10-20 years, these may house 50% or less of the number of current workers with far fewer physical customers. Furthermore, with the rise of AI, some organizations might run on algorithms alone, with literally no human staff.
The future of jobs is not just about employment, but also 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 range of sources to monitor and control every aspect of the built environment and the use of resources within it.
Today, at the dawn of the AI revolution, some of the latest technology coming at us involves mixed reality. There is a buzz about how we can apply advances in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in places of work, education, and various commercial settings. Teaching and training are exemplary uses, enabling dangerous, rare, or just everyday situations to be simulated for trainees. Such simulations also provide the nexus point for humans to work alongside AI. For example, robot surgeons might do the cutting, while a human surgeon looks on remotely via video or a VR/AR interface. How might places be redesigned to accommodate this human-AI hybrid job future? The outcome could be spaces that embrace the blurring of physical and digital worlds, possibly with multi-sensory connection points between the two.
The coming waves of AI in business and society could impact the future design, use, and management of buildings in dramatic ways. Key design features, including construction, security, monitoring, and maintenance, could be coordinated by highly automated AI neural networks. For example, future office buildings might make intelligent responses to their inhabitants’ moods or feelings to increase productivity of humans in the organization—varying lighting, temperature, background music, ambient smells, and digital wallpaper displays according to the motivational needs of each worker.
In the post-work, “shared infrastructure economy,” architects could also factor in “multi-purposing” in the design of new buildings and the remodeling of existing ones. For example, why couldn’t schools double as courtrooms, doctor’s meeting rooms, social centers, and libraries in the evenings and during holidays? Empty space could become more and more of a liability to towns and cities as retail and education move online. In the US, up to 1,000 retail outlets a week are currently being closed. In response, a Texas firm has suggested a design for old shopping malls and retail outlets as drone ports, for example. Other options might include repurposing them as maker spaces, community centers, 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 IBMs Watson AI platform. Intuitive and predictive AI seems set to revolutionize the home and business.
As advances in the cognitive sciences accelerate, there is growing fascination with the idea of neuro-architecture as control mechanism in a post-work society: Will mass automation and efficiency expectations justify the construction of buildings that are responsive to people’s needs, read their moods, use biometrics, and conduct behavior-conditioning of employees? There are many 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 important work than ever. Hence, the use of building design to evoke certain feelings, enhance moods and creativity, and the use of behavioral insights to motivate the workforce could provide an important advantage in the new “cobot” normal 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 employees will be in demand. Furthermore, replacing actual workers with code means the layout, design, and supplies necessary for the typical office would completely change. The role of AI in reducing the amount of people and “stuff” 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% or more of the workforce could be 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.
How might retrofitted building infrastructures interact with the cutting-edge technology of newer constructions?
How can we effectively incorporate AI, VR, and AR into built environments?
How might the design and construction of offices, houses, schools, and stores be altered by the post-job society?
Image: https://pixabay.com/images/id-4272879/ by geralt