The robots are coming!

It’s only natural

G,C,T, and A – these four letters are the building blocks of all life on Earth (Dawkins, 140). The form of each living thing on Earth is entirely determined by different sequences of these four letters which make up the DNA alphabet.

Each one of my cells (excluding a tiny amount of mistakes, red blood cells, and reproductive cells) contains the entire set of DNA ‘instructions’ which defines me. This set of instructions differs greatly from that which is in each one of your cells. These differences are at a precise and measurable set of locations along the string of billions of DNA letters that we all have.

The slightest variations in the sequence of the four letters can lead to dramatic differences in form. Humans share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees. This means that the only difference between swinging between trees and flying to the moon is a meagre two percent. Now, isn’t that humbling?

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“…an incredible spectrum of complexity can be generated from a small kit of modular parts.”

DNA is but a single example that illustrates the idea of ‘emergent complexity’ – the notion that an incredible spectrum of complexity can be generated from a small kit of modular parts. An integral part of this idea is that the final form is invariably a response to the immediate context – essentially a result defined by a set of rules. Ideally these ‘rules’ would be as simple as possible.

The epitome of emergent complexity can be found in what is known as ‘fractal geometry’. Examples of fractal geometry can be found all around us – and become easy to spot when you know where to look. The same general fractal ‘rule’ can generate a myriad of natural forms spanning many scales. The branching of a tree, the structure of the leaves that grow on that tree, the circulatory system that transports blood around our bodies, and even the most emphatic lightning strike all exhibit a very similar form based on a simple, elegant rule. And these aren’t just rules imposed by some omnipotent authority, they are emergent properties of the physical constraints of a system. Meaning they are inherent and inevitable – a similar form will occur every time without fail, as long as the constraints remain the same. The resultant form is a direct response to the constraints of the system. Constraints generate form.

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The number of possible forms diminishes as more of these ‘rules’ are added. This is called ‘convergence’. An example of convergence was given by Professor Robert Sopolsky in a lecture in 2010. In this lecture he describes the extremely harsh environment (an environment with many rules/constraints) near the peak of Mt. Kenya, in Kenya. This is an extremely difficult environment to survive in – there is an extremely small number of means of survival. Namely six: either you could change your name to Bear Grylls, or you could learn from one of the five species of plant that have found a way to survive in this environment. Meaning, without intense military training, there are only five possible solutions to the set of constraints (rules). Now for the astounding bit: on the other side of the world, on the Andes mountains, an almost identical set of plants can be found. These two sets of plants are taxonomically unrelated. This means that the same solutions were arrived at in two similar environments (an environment is simply a set of constraints) in faraway regions – a particular synthesis is inevitable, and repeatable, given constant constraints.

How is all of this relevant to design?

Before we get to logos and ligatures we need to understand how emergence and complexity relates to design. This relationship comes in the shape of algorithms. There are many working definitions, but in this story we’ll use this one: simply put, an algorithm is a simple rule that generates complexity. An algorithm is simply a set of constraints, like those mentioned earlier. It is like a seed in that it contains all the information necessary to grow a majestic oak, and, by extension, an entire forest. Algorithms capture mathematical patterns found in nature.

It’s not a farfetched thing, designers have been using algorithms since they happened across computers.

What does all of this mean at a practical level?

Let’s imagine how this would apply to a design field about as complex as it gets: architecture. The most fundamental elements of architecture are the vertical and horizontal planes. All architecture is composed of varied orientations and modifications of these. These planes are then punctured for sensory and physical connections between spaces: doors, windows, shafts, and ducts, for example.

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Each of the modifications is defined by certain parameters/constraints such as structural limitations (the width and depth of beams and columns), environmental factors (solar shading), economic factors, building regulations, and design principles (such as the Alexandrian Pattern Language), to name but a few.

Most of these parameters are quantifiable and can thus be understood in terms of their mathematical relationships to form. They are translated into quantified parameters, or ‘rules’, which ultimately synthesise some kind of form. Constraints generate form.

Now that we see that architectural form is generated almost entirely by these quantified parameters it is fairly easy to see where algorithms fit in. Architectural form is already, and always has been, generated by certain constraints. Doing it with algorithms is merely a way of automating the process. This automation will eliminate much of the tedium of architectural practice, reduce much of the cost, and potentially improve the equity of the profession. It will allow the skills of designers to truly shine through because much of the drudgery will be automated. To be clear, algorithmic design is not about handing over the design of our precious designed environment to ‘the machines’, it’s about starting the design process at a higher level. It’s a way of describing the design problem (which is nothing more than a set of constraints) to the computer and letting it synthesise the most appropriate solution based on the parameters that we decide are appropriate.

“It will allow the skills of designers to truly shine through…”

It goes without saying that not everything can be quantified and abstracted into a neat little algorithm. What about spirit, or love, or culture? Those are also significant aspects of architecture which can’t be converted into a series of numbers and other symbols. Algorithms can respond to quantifiable elements, but not qualitative ones. Not yet anyway. They can respond to the physical environment, not the metaphysical one. It seems that algorithmic design will neatly slice our designed world in two, reinforcing the already contentious distinction between subject and object. We’ll have the physical and the metaphysical worlds to deal with. The physical, quantitative, elements would be dealt with by the algorithms; while the metaphysical, qualitative, elements would be dealt with by the human designers. The split will leave the emotional stuff to the human and the mechanistic stuff to the machine. Which is simply an efficient use of resources. As opposed to the current arrangement where the human spends most of the design process moving lines around on the screen of their enormously powerful computer; meaning that the machine spends most of its time passively idling, awaiting the next command, seldom being used to its full capabilities.

“Algorithmic design will conceivably conjure up two strains of design…”

Algorithmic design will conceivably conjure up two strains of design: purely algorithmic, and then a step beyond that, where the designer would refine what the computer synthesises. That’s to say we will find design where the entire form is left to the algorithms to figure out, and the design process is halted when the computer is done; and we will get design that moves beyond this point.

Thoughtless designers will be replaced with algorithms. It goes without saying that the quality of the algorithms will depend on the skills of a programmer. Highly refined algorithms will lead to highly refined design. Highly skilled programmers will need to be highly paid. These facts suggest that most design firms wouldn’t move beyond the point of the algorithmic synthesis – because of the economic factors. Most designers would use very basic algorithms which accommodate fewer parameters. This will likely lead to a lifeless, unrefined environment. I wonder what that would look like? Probably a little something like much of the design we see around us everyday. Because thoughtless, shallow design will be that much easier to produce, we will need some way of controlling it, making necessary a whole new set of regulations.

To be clear, algorithmic design will not become a ‘style’. It is an abandonment of style in the pursuit of an ultimate purity. The pursuit of a pure kind of design, unfettered by human trivialities – it is natural, inevitable form, like the plants on Mt. Kenya. This won’t lead to some ultra-rational, soulless type of design any more than those forms found in nature are soulless. The elimination of superfluity in design will give us a spiritual satisfaction because we will be in perfect harmony with our environment — far superior to the superficial nostalgic fulfilment we gain from design ornament and flourishes. I’m not saying that culture, and other subjective notions, have no place. I’m only saying that we need to incorporate them where they add meaning or value, not superficially.

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“we wouldn’t want the tuna population in the Pacific determining the sizes of window openings of a new library in Singapore”

It will also resurrect the debate of the relevance of subjective parameters – such as culture. It will take people with the right skills to determine which parameters are appropriate – we wouldn’t want the tuna population in the Pacific determining the sizes of window openings of a new library in Singapore. Or would we? No doubt, it would be interesting to see.

Algorithmic design has the potential to be a cleansing force, purifying design of all superfluities and meaningless accretions. Obviously the question of what is deemed superfluous remains a contentious topic – it is not the aim of this article to answer that question. Perhaps I’ll don that challenge another time. 

Algorithmic design also has the potential to be a levelling force. Because all that will be needed, for all forms of design, would be a single algorithm being run on a single (albeit very powerful) computer, and because of the digital nature of the work, anybody with an internet connection could have the algorithm design them whatever they needed.

“Who will own the seeds of our future designed environment? “

But the same way the genetic modification of seeds was supposed to fix world hunger by increasing crop yield and hardiness, among other things, and then corporations found ways to patent their seeds. This allowed them to impose all sorts of restrictions — which essentially reinstates the inequality it was supposed to alleviate. Who will own the seeds of our future designed environment? 

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