AI and cities
A meeting with a former colleague led us to casually discussing artificial intelligence.
We were curious about AI’s disruptive impact on jobs and society. He was of the view that AI will ultimately be an augmentative tool—helping humans think, rather than doing the thinking for us and therefore, humans will still be needed. He elaborated further, “I would still want to talk to an architect for my design needs rather than to a machine.” I replied, “Yes, but your children may not want nor need to.”
While neither of us were particularly knowledgeable about the subject, our conversation was borne out of witnessing the rapid mass adoption of AI which, like most significant technological innovations, has been met with both apprehension and optimism.
Throughout history, significant technological innovation has led to dramatic societal changes.
The printing press led to widespread literacy, standardized language, spread of knowledge, protestant reformism, rise of public opinion, Age of Enlightenment. The nautical compass led to world discovery and global mercantilism. The steam engine brought industrialization, steel milling, railways, and skyscrapers. Petrochemicals brought cars, highways, and modern air travel. The computer, the internet, and modern telephony ushered the information age where all the world’s knowledge is now literally at the palm of one’s hand.
Each technological leap led to a new age of prosperity and raised living standards, with each upheaval also re-ordering economic paradigms and spawning new industries and enterprises in a wave of creative destruction, as described by economist Joseph Schumpeter.
Disruptive technologies that make it to the mainstream often have an emancipating effect.
Previously esoteric occupations held by the elite, such as artisans, scribes, computer programmers, suddenly become available to the masses. Knowledge, thus democratized, enables the efficient and wide-scale production of goods and more knowledge in an ever-ascending path and expanding cycles of innovation.
Just think about how software technologies have evolved in a few years to now enable ordinary people to perform tasks in seconds or minutes that previously took hours or days.
AI—behind the now ubiquitous applications such facial recognition, language translation, image generators, and chatbots—promises more profound impacts on businesses, economies, and our cities in the future. Its impact on the creative industries and some professions are already evident. But it could also have a major effect on climate change and environmental issues.
Through its ability to analyze huge data sets in real time, AI can predict and optimize traffic flows, energy use, and water consumption. Cities can be built and governed with less resources and negative impacts. Our modern quest for smarter cities and smarter buildings fuels the demand for AI.
Technological innovations, however, are not without adverse effects. Job loss, obsolescence, inequity, and monopolies are just a few impacts of disruptive technologies throughout history.
In the case of AI, some experts estimate that the bottom 50 to 90 percent of the world population will be affected with job displacement. While they didn’t provide estimates on how many new jobs AI can create, the alarming statistic could further tip the sentiment against AI.
“Whenever a new information technology comes along, and this includes the printing press, among the very first groups to be ‘loud’ in it are the people who were silenced in the earlier system, which means radical voices”, said historian Ada Palmer.
Emergence of a New Romanticism?
It is possible for some contrarian philosophies to emerge as a response to AI.
The reasons for opposing the technology abound: privacy rights infringement, nefarious use of AI, doomsday scenarios of singularity (super intelligent machines that enslave or eradicate humanity).
History has shown that technological upheavals trigger counter movements and alternative ideology. An example was the Romantic Period of the 19th century which grew as a response to the prevailing Industrial Revolution and scientific rationalization characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.
Romanticists rejected precepts of order and rationalism and instead emphasized the subjective, individual, imaginative, and transcendental. It glorified the natural (and supernatural), exalted emotions over reason, and senses over intellect.
The movement spawned luminaries such as Chopin, William Blake, Jane Austen, Beethoven, and Victor Hugo. In architecture, the movement was expressed in through a revival of older medieval styles such as Gothic architecture, attempting to evoke base emotions of fear and awe. This later expanded into Eclecticism exemplified by the works of Gaudi sensuous, evocative, spontaneous, unpredictable.
Amid the rise of AI, will we see a resurgence of Romanticism as a reaction to the data-driven algorithms that now govern our lives and predict our actions? Will we find solace in spaces that are concurrently emotionally resonant and creatively stimulating? Will we start to exalt nature in our built environments and value spaces for how they transcend our desire for the fast and the quantifiable?
Computer scientist and AI expert Kai-Fu Lee has mentioned that AI is useless in two significant ways: it has no creativity and no capacity for compassion or love. That seems ominous. But that is the trajectory of a society fixated on speed and rationality.
And it is here where the biggest opportunity for AI may be present—when it can enhance our creativity and deepen our experience of the world. In a society that has come to depend on quantitative data and evidence-based practices for many of its decisions, perhaps in an AI world, it is intuition and subjective human insight that can be the source of the sublime.
The author is founder and principal of JLPD, a master planning and design consultancy practice.