AI as a tool or something more?

Written by

Martin Bignell
Martin Bignell

Martin is currently studying at the University of the West of England in Bristol and is in his 2nd year of the Level 7 Architectural Apprenticeship.

The advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) prompts us to ponder the possibility of being supplanted by computers, sparking debates about the future of practice, the ethical implications of AI and the need for a balance between technological advancement and human well-being. Whilst the progression and integration of AI is unfolding, its potential is yet unknown.

“I have been around long enough to see multiple waves of technological change in the industry and this argument happens every single time… It happened during CAD [Computer-Aided Design], it happened during BIM [Building Information Modelling], and now it’s happening with AI.”

“We always seem to survive these things.” Phillip Bernstein

Throughout the journey, from drawing boards to the expansion of computers and the digital realm, the built environment has consistently advanced, effortlessly fusing architectural innovation with cutting-edge technologies. The evolvement of AI has allowed for the generation of design concepts and iterations, visualisations and renderings, whilst also assisting with data analysis, costings, proofreading and generating text. AI is being developed for different uses seemingly every month. Whilst having a software to assist in producing all of these things will save time, it can come with an overreliance on technology, therefore, limiting creativity. Additionally, there is the risk that currently, AI softwares are not yet advanced enough and will produce incorrect data or unusable outputs, whilst providing a price tag for usage and licensing. Architect, Norman Foster, says, “We live in a world which is physical, we inhabit buildings, streets, squares. That physicality, you can’t replicate by artificial intelligence.”

Whilst AI may become a standard in the industry moving forward, human oversight, creativity and knowledge will likely still be imperative to creating the physical architecture itself. With new AI softwares, such as MidJourney, Dalle and LookX, we need to strike the right balance between utilising AI as a useful tool for efficiency and ensuring human input and control.

Result from asking AI to make an image we could use for a blog about the use of AI in designing architecture

Does AI merely represent a novel tool in our technology, or does it pose the potential to replace the role of Architects?

AI is not just a software, it is a culture and environment that we need to adapt to in order to progress within this ever-evolving field. The industry thrives on progress and within the intricate tools that AI has opened, there is a new realm of creative possibility to push design and efficiency further. Although not yet fully discovered, it is important to stay up to date, to ensure that we can remain fully in control. There are major architectural practices actively utilising and experimenting with AI, integrating it into their business models, those who choose to ignore it will ultimately struggle to keep up with the industry.

“You can’t run away from it, you need to run towards it” Errazuriz

Whilst the potential of AI is undoubtably evolving, it is interesting to gain an understanding of what AI thinks it is/will be capable of in the future. We have put the above question into ChatGPT and generated the following response:

“The role of AI in architecture is a subject of ongoing debate. While AI unquestionably serves as a powerful tool, its potential to replace the role of architects is a nuanced question. AI can significantly enhance the design process, aiding architects in generating innovative ideas, optimizing designs, and streamlining aspects of construction. However, the creative and intuitive aspects of architectural design, which involve understanding cultural contexts, human emotions, and aesthetic nuances, remain inherently human.

AI is most effective when it complements the skills of architects, offering tools to expedite tasks, analyse vast datasets, and suggest design solutions. The collaborative synergy between human creativity and AI efficiency holds promise for pushing the boundaries of architectural innovation. Yet, the ethical considerations, the need for subjective judgment, and the intricacies of human experience underscore the irreplaceable role of architects in shaping spaces that resonate with people. Striking a balance between leveraging AI as a valuable assistant and preserving the essence of human-centric design is crucial for the harmonious evolution of architecture in the age of AI.”

The danger of relying on AI, will result in the establishment of who is legally responsible if an AI generation was to cause a fault or delay. Will it be the AI software, the person who created the AI software or the Architect? It could be that, if you have not checked or controlled the output from AI, then that is your fault. We shape our tools, and they shape us. You do not blame the flatpack furniture company if you have built it wrong, so why should we blame the AI software if you do not know how to use it?

There are questions surrounding authorship and originality which pose significant challenges. The UK Government appears to be taking AI seriously, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, attended an AI safety summit in November 2023, although the issue of authorship has not yet been solved. In the UK’s legal framework, the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (‘CDPA’) theoretically extends copyright protection to computer-generated works, even in the absence of a human creator. According to the law, if a work is “generated by computer in circumstances where there is no human author,” the individual who undertakes the necessary arrangements for its creation is deemed the author, i.e. the developer of the AI. Such certainty will only prevail once copyright and insurance status are resolved.

As students, we had a prior interest in the subject matter of AI, however, this year, our studio brief has embraced AI software and their capabilities, which has given us the opportunity to develop our knowledge and understanding on a more practical level. Through gaining a more thorough understanding of its usage, we have been able to teach and make our colleagues aware of the AI tools available and what they can do. During our university studio sessions, we have been integrating AI into our proposals and learning how to use it appropriately and effectively, generating design concepts and visualisations. During the last academic year, the majority of our outputs have been unsuccessful, however, the clear progression in real time of these tools has been illuminating and they have allowed us to learn not to rely on their outputs, but to use them as tools to drive certain design choices.

“Good ideas come from everywhere. It’s more important to recognise a good idea than to author it.” Jeanne Gang

So, is AI a tool, or will it become something more? Will Architects be replaced? Without knowing the full future of AI and only speaking for the existing platforms and predicted evolution, the industry will need to adapt. Remaining in control of AI is a skill that we need to learn in order to progress with the new technologies that evolve every day. If we fail to adapt, we may lose out, but by taking the opportunities that come from AI, we may also have better jobs and opportunities as a result.