Automating infrastructure design

Mark Cameron
Jan 15, 2017 · 3 min read
2001: A space oddyssey (MGM 1968)

Who doesn’t love the old 80’s and 90’s sci-fi movies like Tron & Lawnmower Man? Work would be computers with no keyboards, no mouse & no screens. We were going to be part of the machine and visualising real life problems within the digital world.

In 1968, HAL 9000 showed us that artificial intelligence could turn evil, menacing and dangerous like a ghost in the machine. In contrast, Red Dwarf’s HOLLY or Zaphod Beeblebrox’s stolen cruiser HEART OF GOLD had personality, sarcasm and wit.

This new world dreamed up by writers of fiction gave the kids of the 70’s and 80’s hope of a world of leisure where our every whim is catered for by robots and computers. In the dreamworld of their world our daily lives would be lived playing tennis, watching TV and active socialising. If this is true, without goals or drive what challenges would heighten our sense of achievement, satisfaction of crossing the finish line after a grueling and punishing road? Is this a life we really want? Do we want to do nothing, or is there an inbuilt desire in humans to create and build, destroy and innovate?

These thoughts fascinate many, and intrigue me to a large degree. Because in my heart, I love to design! I crave the challenges that the natural and social environment places upon the design and construction of infrastructure. Every day there are stories relating to the rapid adoption of automation and robotics, with the news warning us that our jobs are at risk as a result of this expansion. Are design jobs at risk, surely not!

Browsing the catalogs of Autodesk, Trimble and Bentley AEC products we see that automation is already here, but not currently used by industry to its full theoretical potential. If the tools currently on the market become mainstream practice what does that mean for the current and future design engineers and architects?

Engineers, scientists and Architects are thinkers and doers, do we want our jobs to be automated? I say BLOODY OATH! Bring it on.

Does that mean our jobs will be defunct?As a slightly older fella in the industry I tend to worry that the young whipper snappers will take over and make us redundant quicker than you can say “I wanna waffle…”.

What will our jobs look like then? I believe the fundamental tasks will be retained, but how we set about the job will be completely different.

We will ultimately be in charge of entering parameters into these automated design programs. I think this because when you break down each project into elements and questions the why; what; when; and how of each element, it is logical to come to the conclusion that its existence is based on the REACTION to RULES. The rules, in most cases, can be broken down into social, environmental and topographical specifications or constraints.

Generally speaking, a design task must follow a ‘do or do not’ process based on a set rules and regulations. But who sets the rules and regulations?

In our industry, we often create linear infrastructure from A to B that also have connections to C,D &E. Simple. BUT, in going from A to B we have to AVOID a cluster of 1000 year old oak trees, a heritage building, and cross a watercourse without causing upstream flooding. These rules are therefore set by humans based on what is important to them. I suspect due to the human human emotional attachment to places and things this task would be difficult to automate.

Following this train of thought, engineers and scientists will still be required, but rather than setting to daily mundane tasks they will be focused on setting parameters and goals that are based on social benefits and the common good. I believe that this is WHY engineers, scientists, and architects enter their professions in the first place: to create something BEAUTIFULLY SIMPLE.

Thanks for reading my thoughts on the world, and if you liked this story please consider sharing and start a conversation. Also, let me know by clicking the little love heart.

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