Over the past decades, technology disruptions have changed the way we work, live and interact. A common factor is the disrupting technology was tangible: personal computer, mobile phone, MP3 player, smartphone, virtual assistants. All these solutions were bought at a store, unboxed, connected and activated.
The next “disruption” will be a culmination of all the preceding disruptors. It will not be pulled from a retail shelf, unboxed, touched, or seen. This disruption will be unavoidably experienced and is known as Artificial Intelligence.
Disruptions in Review
As designers in the construction industry, we are expected to peer into the future to provide clients with facilities that adapt to evolving trends. To better understand designs for future disruptions, we should look back at previous events.
The personal computer changed the office workplace. The adoption of computers at every desk increased the demand for building networks requiring multiple connections in each office and cubicle. The advent of laptops and subsequent smart devices pushed the need for building-wide wireless networking, a feature we now take as commonplace in today’s buildings.
Recent disruptions that include faster home internet, the proliferation of smart devices, and smart apps allowing students and the workforce to be constantly connected wherever they are. These trends have impacted building design in a much different manner, such as open office layouts, huddle spaces, and an emphasis on community spaces, resulting in more hybrid, multi-functional buildings.
The Current State
Recent advancements involve a compilation of existing technologies. Smart devices with integrated cameras enabling one to join a video conference from almost anywhere. Cloud-based storage allowing multiple users to simultaneously collaborate within a digital workspace. LED lighting fixtures with integrated sensors connected to the building network removing the need for integrated lighting control systems. These upgrades subtly enhance experiences in our everyday lives.
But we are now beginning to see a cross-pollination of technology ushered in with the new and somewhat mysterious IoT. As manufacturers adopt common software code and support code from complementary manufactures, building automation functions more efficiently with less hardware, less proprietary infrastructure, and less programming. We are at the precipice where all new buildings are — at some level — smart buildings.
A primary issue with building automation is the limited data on occupants. Presently, the best data gathering tools available includes sensors, beacons, room scheduling systems, audiovisual user controls and lighting user controls. Potentially, the best tool for the collection of occupant data is personal smart devices. A smart device app customized for an individual building or campus could be the answer. This app could leverage geolocation data coupled with scheduling and personal preferences to create better data points for building automation systems to utilize. Additionally, any building maintenance or cleaning issues could be easily reported through the app. The amount of software development currently required, however, can be a drawback. We have conceptualized this approach for several projects and hope to see the initial implementations soon.
The “Unknown” Current State
The Pew Research Center recently observed that over 81% of adults in the US 1 own a smartphone or tablet. Social commentary mournfully quips about how society is attached to our devices, engrossed in checking email, taking selfies, browsing social media, and posting restaurant reviews. The usability of our devices is greatly underleveraged.
Meanwhile, known and unknown tech companies are quietly collecting data on all of us. We have all heard the conspiracy theory that your phone is listening to you. Have you tested Facebook to see if they really are listening to you? Some have tested this notion, merely talking about a subject they have never searched for online. Within hours, ads relating to that subject appears in their news feed and along with other frequented websites. Mark Zuckerberg recently told Congress that Facebook does not listen to users through their microphone. However, he did not address the other apps in your device that are doing it for them.2
Location firms such as Fysical and SafeGraph track the movements of smart device users. Collectively these firms have location tracking code in over 2,000 popular smart device apps, 1,200 within Google’s Android apps alone.3 What does this mean? Our movements are being tracked, stored and sold; an underlying reason why many apps are inexpensive or free.
A real-world test regarding the public’s acceptance of smart phone tracking is occurring with COVID-19 tacking apps. In the U.S. apps that have been rolled out simply are not being downloaded by enough people to have any major effect. China has embedded COVID-19 tracking code into the most widely used smart phone apps. While China’s rollout is also voluntary, a user who does not acquire their personal QR code finds it difficult to move around. 4
Our smart devices have been leveraged by businesses to collect data on ourselves. Some data we knowingly submit by building our profile and answering seemingly benign questions online. Other data we suspect is being tracked and archived. It seems we rather enjoy the apps’ offering than worry about the unknown data mining that is occurring. Some apps are collecting data on us without our knowledge.5 Personal data is now a powerful commodity, as powerful as oil, and is the fuel artificial intelligence needs to operate.
Developments in AI
While some may view AI as more of an experiment than a useful product, it’s already at work in our everyday life. Predictive text, smart thermostats, and virtual assistants (if they can understand you) are a few examples where AI is in play on a personal scale. Artificial Intelligence is being developed and employed in a siloed manner within the defense industry, banking, supply chain management, advertising, and many others. While we are going about our day, our devices are quietly transmitting key data points on our activity and habits. This data is currently used for marketing purposes but will be leveraged to provide the needed input for machine learning to occur. The statement “information is power” is very real regarding AI, and the key component to its development.
There are many intriguing developments. For example, NVIDIA can create realistic photos of almost anything, people, architecture, animals, cars, etc. with their latest AI.6 Experimental AI can predict human behavior and outcomes better than humans can. Chatbots may be replacing virtual assistants as “personal assistants.” Microsoft claims their solution will predict your needs before you ask.7 MIT is investing in a $1B in a new College of Computing, focusing on AI.8 The overarching goal in these efforts is reliable machine learning. A collection of code and processing power that can think better than a human, has the power to analyze large volumes of data in mere moments, and never needs sleep.
A previous issue of The Sextant explored the expansion of 5G networks and how they will provide constant connectivity of smart devices. IoT will link constant streams of real-time data to AI applications. LeoSat is launching over seventy 5G-ready low orbit satellites serving enterprise clients globally.9 SpaceX has the approval from the FCC to deploy a 5G network called Starlink. They currently have permission to launch over 12,000 satellites and pushing for up to 42,000 creating a global 5G network.10 SpaceX alone has permission to more than quintuple the number of satellites currently orbiting Earth! While on the matter of Mr. Musk, he is backing a venture called Nuralink that is developing a brain-computer interface. Their goal is to solve the bandwidth problem between thought and the digital version of yourself.11 Add robots and drones to the mix, and the unknowns expand exponentially.
There are hundreds of indicators pointing to a major shift in how we will interface with technology within the next five years. AI is being developed in virtually every field including medicine, finance, entertainment, advertising, design, and defense. Parallel preceding advancements will accelerate the development and adoption of AI, and there are a lot of moving parts. It is quite overwhelming to grasp. The transition to 5G networks will broaden cellular coverage exponentially. Cloud computing will overtake traditional server installations. Stored data collected through smart devices is being made available as a commodity. Robotics and brain-computer interfaces will continue to develop further merging humans and machines. Quantum computing will provide the needed processing power. AI encompasses most if not all of the previous technology disruptions. This could truly be an event of Hollywood proportions.
This is a lot of information, but how does this affect facility design? The initial movement will include enhancements to the virtual assistant experience. We will see these developments transition to commercial applications moving into smart building controls. Coupled with occupant data from sensors, beacons, smart device apps, and most recently body temperature cameras, buildings will operate with more efficiency and potentially less management. Future-proofing today’s buildings requires an investment in digital monitoring and automation of systems across all disciplines.
Additional changes will stem from the above. Gaining more access to facility usage data through AI-enhanced building solutions will support smarter decisions in planning and facility design. The volumes of building use data acquired will likely require AI applications for analysis. Artificial Intelligence will inevitably become more involved in steering building design and the design process. This spreads into potential advantages in cross-discipline coordination, improved coordination of building aesthetics, code compliance, building systems design, etc.
How occupants utilize a building in the next 5 to 10 years is always in question. One could argue with the convergence of high-speed connectivity, brain-computer interfaces, and AI, we may not need to conduct business, collaborate, or learn in person. If we can communicate as if we are face to face, why should we create offices or meeting spaces? Because of the Covid-19 pandemic this question becomes more interesting. We have all experienced an increased level of connecting with others digitally, remotely, shopping online. We have also experienced a lack of community, increased isolation and fewer experiences. A recent study of over 2,000 U.S. workers found over 70% of workers want to return to the office for some or all of the work week. 12 Top reasons cited included face to face meetings, socializing with colleagues and to be part of a community. It appears we are finding the lack of human connection to be less desirable than advertised.
If Hollywood has taught us anything on this subject, humans need personal connection. We seek out experiences. We thrive through exploring local and distant destinations, meeting friends at the neighborhood pub, attending a local house of worship, family gatherings, and sports events. Logically, in facility design, we could expect to see the continued reduction in administration and office space along with a further emphasis on meeting, gathering and huddle spaces. As building systems become more adaptable, more spaces within a building could be purposed for multiple uses and converted for each in short order. Huddle and collaboration spaces may be increasingly important as general information shared in larger meetings will be more and more communicated virtually. Small group collaboration will be a need for deeper decision making. Personal pods could become more commonplace. Larger, more informal, and more experiential common areas will be sought after to facilitate and sustain the growing demand for interactive experiences.
As AI technology increases, there may be a clear divide between persons who are connected and those who are not. This begs the question. What becomes of those who are late adopters or refuse to plug in at all? In this case, the late adopters will need to be accounted for in our designs. While some rile against antiquated technology and ideas, maybe this resistance keeps some needed tension in our design decisions. Our designs will need to accommodate both current and new technologies, pedagogies, and processes. Each design effort will need to look at aging practices and technologies to discover which functions should be accommodated or replaced with newer ideas.
The future-proofed building will be equipped with smart infrastructure across all disciplines ready to connect to AI programs. This will include smart lighting in all spaces, smart window treatments throughout, robust multi-tiered Wi-Fi networks, lower latency networks along with audio and visual systems connecting users to the facility. As with current buildings, there are several component subsets with differing ranges of life expectancy. Certain subsets will evolve, some more frequently. Other components integrated into the facility will remain for years, possibly decades.
As we design today, many elements need to be considered with the future in mind, making our product adaptable to this
disruption transformation in progress.
Senior Systems Designer Travis Seibel CTS-D brings 20+ years of experience in assessing clients’ needs, and then coordinating and collaborating with other professionals to create audiovisual systems to meet those needs. Credentials include corporate collaboration spaces and training suites, classrooms, labs and flexible learning environments, libraries, medical simulation, and research facilities for clients from Google, TD Ameritrade and Entercom Communications, to the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, and the University of Virginia.