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AI architecture made by Neil Leach with Midjourney

"AI is putting our jobs as architects unquestionably at risk"

Architects urgently need to get to grips with the existential threat posed by AI or risk, in ChatGPT's words, "sleepwalking into oblivion", writes Neil Leach.

In the near future, architects may become a thing of the past. Artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly advancing to a point where it can generate the design of a building completely autonomously. With the potential to create designs faster and with more accuracy than ever before, AI has the potential to revolutionize the architecture industry, leaving traditional architects out of the equation. This could spell the end of the profession as we know it, raising questions of what the future holds for architects in a world of AI-generated buildings.

I did not write the paragraph above. It was generated by ChatGPT, a highly impressive AI text generator that recently launched. Make no mistake: despite its innocuous-sounding name, ChatGPT is no simple chat bot. It is based on GPT3, a massive Generative Pre-Trained Transformer (GPT) that uses Deep Learning to produce human-like text from user-inputted prompts.

This could spell the end of the profession as we know it

Social media is now awash with reports from across algorithmic echo-chambers about the jaw-dropping potential of ChatGPT. Conservative Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson was stunned by the outcomes generated by ChatGPT. "I asked it to write an essay written in a style that combines the King James Bible and the Tao Te Ching," he said. "You know, any one of those things is hard. The intersection of all three, that's impossible. Well, it wrote it in about three seconds, grammatically perfect, and quite impressive philosophically." Democratic US Congressman Ted Lieu is freaked out by it and wants AI to be regulated. Systems under development right now – such as GPT4, a substantial improvement on GPT3 – will surely make the next version of ChatGPT even more impressive.

I first became alarmed by ChatGPT when a Brazilian colleague, upset that Neymar had not been selected to take the first penalty in the World Cup shoot out against Croatia, asked ChatGPT who should have been selected. The answer, it replied immediately, was Neymar. The ramifications of this are somewhat startling. Could football coaches now use ChatGPT for advice during a match? Or could others use it for more general advice? Could we not use ChatGPT, for example, for advice on which material to specify for a building? In fact, could not anyone else do so – including non-architects?

Architects have finally woken up to the extraordinary potential of AI. This is mainly because of the remarkable capability of GPT3-based "diffusion models" – such as DALL-E, MidJourney and Stable Diffusion – to generate images. The quality of the images generated can be simply astonishing. Amazing as they are, however, these images are a potential trap. Some architects have become obsessed with them to the point that they are overlooking the real issue. Ultimately, the AI revolution is not about image production, but about the assistance that AI can offer throughout the entire design process.

ChatGPT is already putting some jobs at risk – and not necessarily the jobs you might think. We have all seen Amazon distribution plants or Tesla factory floors with hardly a human being in sight, and we might imagine that blue collar workers would be the first to go. But progress in robotics has been relatively slow. Simple tasks, such as selecting and picking up a brick, remain challenging for a robotic arm.

Meanwhile, AI has been racing ahead, to the point that ChatGPT is now quite capable of writing code. As software engineer Metehan Ozten puts it: "This is terrifying. What ChatGPT means is that probably within five years from now, software engineers will be obsolete." Be afraid. Be very afraid.

We are led to believe that rumours of the death of the architect are greatly exaggerated

And so what about architecture? Often we are led to believe that rumours of the death of the architect are greatly exaggerated. The unique creative powers of the human mind, so the narrative goes, will endure. I beg to differ, however. There are signs that AI is becoming not only good, but terrifyingly good, to the point that it is beginning to expose our own limitations as human beings, and putting our jobs as architects unquestionably at risk.

Early research by two Oxford scholars, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, suggests that designers will be relatively immune from the dangers of being replaced by AI. Their mistake, however, is to assume that there would be a simple one-for-one replacement of a human worker by a machine. In fact, the way that AI actually operates is as a form of "prosthesis", extending and augmenting the abilities of the architect.

Of course, this can be incredibly helpful. Using AI, a single-person office can now compete with bigger offices and enter large-scale competitions. However, the corollary is that practices will no longer need so many architects. Wanyu He, CEO of AI architecture software developer Xkool, estimates that a single architect using AI can achieve as much as five architects not using AI. Does that mean that 80 per cent of all architectural jobs are now at risk? Looking into the future, it seems certain that AI will soon be able to generate architectural designs completely autonomously – potentially negating the need for an architect at all.

AI is not evil; the problem lies in its very capabilities. It is already better than us in some areas, and will eventually be better in every single domain. As chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov noted following his historic defeat by IBM's Deep Blue computer way back in 1997: "Everything we know how to do, machines will do better."

Now is the time to discuss solutions. Most obviously, architects need to start taking advantage of AI as a way of staying ahead in an increasingly competitive world – "if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em", as the saying goes. We need to familiarize ourselves with the potential of AI, and upgrade ourselves to become "superusers" – to use a term coined by architect Randy Deutsch.

What we architects should be designing right now is not another building, but rather the very future of our profession

Most important, however, is to be aware of the problem. For once a problem has been recognised, it becomes a different kind of problem – not one by which we are trapped, but one we can address. Surely, what we architects should be designing right now is not another building, but rather the very future of our profession.

I will leave the final words to ChatGPT: "Architects who choose to ignore AI will be left behind and ultimately forgotten as the industry evolves and advances. Therefore, it is imperative that architects pay attention to AI and its potential to revolutionize architecture, or they risk sleepwalking into oblivion."

Neil Leach is a professor at Florida International University, where he directs the Doctor of Design program. He has published two books on AI and architecture: Architecture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: An Introduction to AI for Architects (Bloomsbury, 2022) and Machine Hallucinations: Architecture and Artificial Intelligence (Wiley, 2022). He is currently working on two further books on AI and architecture: The AI Design Revolution: How AI will Transform Architecture (Routledge) and The Death of the Architect: The Demise of the Profession in the Age of AI (Bloomsbury).

The image was created by Neil Leach using MidJourney.

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