The use of algorithms in design, from fashion to buildings, is not a new concept. However, Artificial Intelligence (AI) might influence design outcomes in a more profound way: by shaping what it means to be human.
It is 4:30 am and you are awake and ready to get to work. You are starting the day early not because your commute is long, or for a post-work spin class, but to spend as much time as you can, working.
If it sounds too keen, or frankly, unappealing – what if I also told you that you weren’t getting paid for it? In fact, in this scenario, you will be the one paying for the privilege to work, through the trading of objects.
Why? To have something to do.
This is not the headline-seeking post-AI dystopian future in which technology replaces humans, but it was a case documented by researchers almost 30 years ago.
This scenario happened in a prison where inmates would get up before dawn, exchange cigarettes and negotiate privileges to be able to do a job. For the sake of having something to do.
The ‘job’ in question was to feed the fish in a tank.
As a researcher, I can see that there is no need to wait for AI to take our jobs to understand the effects it might have, we already have environments where we can study the effects of Occupational Depravation. As an architect, I wonder how the workplaces of the future might be like.
The scenarios forecasting the future of work are based mostly on the ability of technology to undertake tasks appropriately. The most influential study in the field deconstructs professions into tasks and estimates the probability of computers to do them. This approach foresees approximately 47 percent of jobs lost to technology in the US.
“If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, if the shuttle could weave, and the pick touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not need servants, nor masters slaves.”
Of course, today’s technology goes well beyond mechanical activities like weaving and playing the lyre. In 1997 Kasparov lost against IBM’s Deep Blue. In 2011, Jeopardy! Master players lost against IBM’s Watson and in 2016 AlphaGo beat the human reigning champion at the Chinese game Go – a game so complex it has more possible board configurations than the number of atoms in the known universe.
However, while automation will replace jobs, technology will also create new opportunities. For example, a study found that between 1996 and 2015 the Internet eliminated 500,000 jobs in France, but at the same time created 1.2 million – that is, 2.4 jobs created for every job lost. Others believe that AI will not replace humans, but work alongside us.
However, forecasting the future of work on its ability to be automated provides a limited view of work itself. Firstly, because narrowing work to the sum of its tasks overlooks the synergy between them. But more importantly, because this view assumes a constant evolution of technology (how the task is done) while keeping the idea of work itself (why it is done) constant.
Dictionary definitions of ‘work’ such as “to be engaged in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a result” have allowed us to carry on with our jobs, without actually understanding what work is. Indeed, definitions of work fall short in encompassing today’s complex and layered economic, social, political, psychological and physiological aspects of work.
Studying ‘work’ as a phenomenon is important, if only because in doing so we get closer to understanding what makes us, us. As it has been said, individuals are most true to their humanity when engaged in occupation. What is more, we might need an occupation to retain our humanity.
The death of the office and a jobless society
The concept of work has changed through time and cultures – and will continue to change. By studying the different ‘containers’ of where work takes place, architects have a privileged view of the concept of work. From free-range hunter/gatherers to ‘caged’ knowledge-workers.
The history of the office illustrates not only how our work has changed, but also how work’s physical spaces respond to cultural, technological and social forces. Thus, a parallel story to a jobless society is the ‘death of the office’.