Are we brave enough to entrust how we live to algorithms?

Almost everything we see around is us made by us. From mega-structures to remote controls, even much of the landscape is made or shaped by us. Of course, computer-aided design has made a huge difference to that, giving us buildings – like the Gherkin in London – which would never have been possible prior.

But the combination of generative design, machine learning and large amounts of on-demand computing power means our environment is going to change radically. So much so that the very notion of the environment being “manmade” may be about to go away. In the future, the environment will be made for man, by algorithms.

A lot of this future is on display this week at AutoDesk University London, where a huge gathering of the design software company’s customers and partners are coming together for two days of learning about both the Autodesk products and the key trends in design. And the topics covered are proof of what an exciting time it for designers in all fields, from product development to architecture and entertainment.

Of course, as you would expect, there’s plenty of work being done on and in virtual reality, which is now stretching its remit into new areas. One hot topic is how virtual and mixed reality will shift the way we interact with narratives, from storytelling to “story living”. VR also impacts heavily on how we make physical things, with every single profession that deals with the built and manmade environment heavily investing in tools to create VR visions of the future.

But it’s artificial intelligence and machine learning that are beginning to have a real impact. Autodesk is showing demos of future technology that would allow building designers to create optimal office space layouts in ways that it would be simply impossible for humans to achieve – or, for that matter, entirely understand.

In most demos, this kind of generative design driven by machine learning is confined to office space. But what if we also applied it to our housing? If you take a look at the new housing developments we create, they offer highly traditional spaces – although the details of the build may change, the fundamentals of housing remain the same.

The biggest question is whether we’re brave enough to let go of our traditional ways of living in favour of something designed by a machine. No matter how much focus there is on building something with all the factors that make a lovely home – open space, sunlight, privacy and so on – things that deviate from the traditional model of a house with four windows at the front, a living room and kitchen aren’t likely to be accepted by the open market.

As humans, we rarely like taking a big leap away from what we already have, what we already know. Machines, if they are to become designers for living, need to get to grips with this factor too.

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