How artificial intelligence might influence design outcomes by shaping what it means to be human.
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’.
Considered as a shell to be discarded once work reached digital maturity, the office has all but reclaimed its importance. In 2013 Yahoo! canceled their work-from-home policy, urging all their employees to be collocated. Commentators like Forbes saw this as an isolated, if not rebellious, attempt to take “work back to the stone-age”.
However, in 2017 IBM reconsidered their workplace strategy, and they, too, brought people back into the office. At the expense of losing real estate saving of when people were working remotely.
Most recently, Apple invested US$5 billion on their corporate campus. While the design of their campus is indeed what you would expect from Apple, it is still a physical workplace – an office.
Not limited to big corporations, the importance of having a place to work is fueling the proliferation of co-working environments – even if only for gig workers to combat isolation.
Economic fear vs fear of lost purpose
Why is it that the very same organizations that enabled the promise of a digital, distributed workforce, are the ones going back to brick-and-mortar workplaces? For the same reasons that a jobless society is not in our future: work is much more than the activities it is composed of.
Writing emails, editing documents and crunching spreadsheets are tasks that can be done anywhere. Work can’t.
In today’s society, perhaps the single most important fear of withdrawal from work might be economic. However, its importance goes well beyond that.
Work contributes to a sense of belonging, identity, and purpose. Studies on non-human primates show how even in a controlled environment, without predators and with a consistent food supply – in other words, a utopian future for some of us – feeding enrichment programs, where animals ‘work’ for their food stimulate and maximize their health and wellbeing.
Work and workplace
My Ph.D. on workplace architecture and technology concluded that the more technology we create, the more human our workplaces need to be to nurture our remaining advantages over machines.
Interestingly, machines beat us at chess, Jeopardy! and Go, not by replicating human thinking, but by relentlessly applying logical calculations. Humans made errors, became anxious and feared for their reputations. Human players lost to computers because of their humanity. Our jobs in the future, ergo our workplaces, need to reflect our humanity.
It is thus necessary to expand the discussion beyond whether there will be less or more of jobs. The quality of jobs, what we will be doing and why is as important.
And thus, while we might not recognize the activities that constitute work in the future, perhaps feeding fish, the environment in which they occur might feel increasingly human and recognizable as such.
This view might seem out of touch with dominant workplace strategies that aim to optimize the number of people per square meter. Ironically, algorithms are too getting better “at the task of packing the maximum possible desks in a given office polygon”.
By the same token, contemporary management styles reward, if not outright demand, machine-like traits such as efficiency, consistency and the constant increase of productivity. However, aiming to convert people into machines is only a competitive advantage when competing with other humans, and not when competing against AI.
Of course, the humanization of work and workplaces will take time. It was not until recently that emotions started to be recognized in an otherwise rational view of work and workplaces.
We should remain hopeful that the most significant and exciting outcome of technology influencing the design of workplace environments in the future might not come from people-cramming algorithms. But, by AI redefining, if not enriching, our purpose and design follow suit.