A team from Ford conducted an amazing test this past week that speaks to the coming augmented age in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. Using Lidar, a car was able to autonomously drive in complete darkness without headlights. It has been possible to drive in complete darkness using technology like night vision goggles for many years, and autonomous driving is rapidly becoming more feasible. Yet combining both of these in one test entered a new realm because it went beyond the capabilities of a human driver.
A similar shift has recently occurred in AEC where machines and/or computer programs are developing capabilities that allow them to run largely independently of a human driver. Design programs using generative design (such as BuildingSP's GenMEP) can provide a user with a plethora of design options based on a given set of parameters. Companies like Airbus are using these programs to maximize efficiency for airplane parts, while Hack Rod is using AI-powered generative design to build a racecar. Even Nike is in on the game, using automation and 3D printing to build custom running shoes optimally designed for each individual runner.
Given the current rate of technological advancement, the role of the engineer, like the role of the driver, is rapidly changing. SingularityHub recently likened the emerging role of the engineer to that of a parent: "It is, in fact, a lot like parents setting boundaries for their children's activities. The user basically says, 'Yes, it's ok to do this, but it's not ok to do that.' The resulting solutions are ones you might never have thought of on your own." Just as parents must trust that they have given their children the tools necessary to make wise decisions, tomorrow's designers and engineers will have to put their faith in the program, allowing them time to get even more creative with the details.
Yet whether it's self-driving cars or "thinking" machines, advancements in automation give some people pause. Aside from the Terminator-like visions of the machines taking over, many simply worry that the machines will steal their jobs. These fears aren’t entirely without merit, since everyone from Uber drivers to machinists to healthcare professionals stand to be affected by the onset of automation. Rather than accepting certain doom, however, the augmented age may well be an age of unprecedented innovation, the kind that can truly change our world.
There may indeed come a day when self-driving automobiles can reliably maneuver on crowded highways, in the dark, or even in a blizzard. A truly smart car will be able to drive dangerous highways much more safely than a human could. Similarly, the time has come when a truly smart program can find an optimal design solution much faster than a human can. But we at BuildingSP like to focus on what the augmented age will bring to our society instead of what it has the potential to take away.