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AI brings opportunities as well as a challenge

Simon Allford

For Simon Allford, the much-discussed potential of artificial intelligence highlights the value of an informed, engaged profession

AI is in its infancy. We need the skills and engagement to make the most of it, rather than going down the Terminator route.
AI is in its infancy. We need the skills and engagement to make the most of it, rather than going down the Terminator route. Credit: iStock | Bobislav

Much is being made of artificial intelligence and its implication for society’s future. As ever there are doom-sayers and optimists battling for headlines. As a fan of the film Terminator I can heed the warning. The debate will rage on, and as architects are at best servants of/selling/offering a service to society we will have to get involved. For now, for us, AI is in its infancy. Progress on BIM in our world suggests we have the knowledge, aptitude and capacity to move fast on AI when we need to do so. We will, of course, be relying on the technical skills of the next generation and the engagement of the wider profession; this is not such a purely technical exercise as BIM. 

The government will need to get involved too. Having attended a CreaTech event hosted by the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, I’m aware that it’s already on it. It knows this is a vital economic driver/opportunity and that using AI in tenders and regulations could help kickstart the revolution.

Which brings me back to the very current discussions, between the RIBA, ARB, our members and the schools, about educational reform. My own position remains that we are here for architecture first, the profession second and the institute third. Architecture existed long before it was professionalised and will last long after it is re- or de-regulated.

The profession matters because it is a generally open, intellectual and practical peer group. The institute matters, and will flourish, as it recognises evermore strongly that its basis is as a learned society that captures and shares knowledge and data; promotes best practice in practise, research, education and intellectual speculation; and hosts an open discourse. 

This list of personal priorities does not diminish one or another but it sets up a framework for my thinking. The AI debate further reinforces the need for reflection on the future of knowledge and thought, creativity and craft, skills and learning. Many of you working in schools and practice, along with the RIBA, will already have submitted your response to ARB’s speculations. The RIBA’s response is punchy and rightly so – as we have acquired an institutional memory as well as skill and knowledge through many years of working with our members in academe and practice in a critically important International Validation programme.

My discussions with many of you in many formats have been informative and engaging and have helped shape my own personal position on our future. We need choice and a rich variety of  architectural training routes that focus on the art and technology of architecture, its social purpose and commerce and contract. Space, time and architecture still matters: it should be possible to speed up and slow down the education and the time needed to qualify to suit individuals. Education can be provided in academe, practice and hybrid models. Above all, we need these forms of education to help us develop the intellect and knowledge that allow us to continuously evolve so that we are capable of addressing both the uncertain implications and the opportunities offered by AI. These are exciting times!