Tackling the ubiquitous, disruptive nature of exponentially increasing computing power

50 years ago, in April of 1965, Gordon Moore postulated what has widely become known “Moore’s Law”, predicting that the performance of computer chips would increase exponentially every 18 months.

Since then, there have been 33 “doublings” of chip capacity, which means that today’s microprocessors are vastly smaller, quicker, and cheaper than their predecessors. Computing power has essentially become free, and the ubiquitous nature of technology has made it both indispensable and highly disruptive. As a result, there is scarcely an industry, from finance to manufacturing to healthcare to media, which has not experienced fundamental transformation.

At the outset of the computer age, multi-ton room-sized machines were needed handle routine tasks, and the applications were primarily military in nature. As computers became more powerful, they began to shrink in cost and size, and new applications were devised to focus business and finance. The last decade has seen a huge surge in technology applied to personal uses and social media, which has had a profound influence on modern culture, both domestically and globally. Millennials are the first true “digital natives”— they have never known a world that was not governed by Moore’s Law.

How disruptive is this phenomenon? As one example, the failure rate in the electronics industry is 90 percent, primarily because the pace of change is so rapid that today’s breakthrough idea is quickly superseded by an even better one tomorrow. We live in a world where supercomputers can now be worn on the wrist, and where problem solving can easily crowd-sourced to the lowest bidder. Search engines like Google are so effective that the Internet has essentially become a repository of shared human consciousness, equally accessible to all. It might be said that we are suffering not just from information overload, but from an innovation glut.

And that’s just for starters. Computers are now smart enough to handle much more than routine work. According to The Economist magazine, “Between 1988 and 2003 the effectiveness of computers increased by a factor of 43 million. Better processors accounted for only a minor part of this … the lion’s share came from more efficient algorithms.” Fueled by Big Data, computers are being used perform highly sophisticated creative and even intuitive tasks. One example is an “embodied avatar kiosk,” basically a robot equipped with emotion detection software that is being used to interview foreign visitors going through U.S. customs. It turns out that such machines are actually superior to human beings in detecting problems at the border. The implications for not only blue collar but white collar jobs are clear. Could computers be programmed to provide superior medical diagnoses or even render unbiased legal verdicts, supplanting physicians and judges?

We are entering unchartered territory where even the work of creative professionals, such as actors, artists, and musicians, can be automated in whole or in part. Computer animation has already replaced actors in wide variety of film roles, and music synthesizers (as well digital analysis of what constitutes a hit record) are already old hat in the music industry. The all-time champion of the game show Jeopardy is an IBM computer, and Sergy Brin and Larry Page are famous for declaring that “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”

The implications for the A/E/C industry are profound and far-reaching. One particularly innovative design/build firm based in Dallas, Beck, is using a system that can generate literally thousands of design options in a matter of seconds, prioritizing them according to pre-determined criteria, then quickly optimizing the results for any given site, program, or budget. The Beck system can also factor in life cycle cost savings and carbon footprint reduction as part of the mix, thus creating huge value for clients. This makes the traditional design process, with its conventional linear process of schematic design, design development, construction documentation, and construction administration, essentially obsolete.

Construction sites are about to be similarly transformed. As drones, robots, and 3-D printers become ever more sophisticated, it is possible to envision a delivery process that is highly automated, efficient, and predictable, where construction components are printed on demand, delivered by drone, and assembled by swarms of constructor robots, so that constructing a building becomes very much like playing a video game. This will greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the 35 percent waste that is endemic to the industry, saving hundreds of billions of dollars each and every year. Safety will go up, and labor costs will come down (robots do not get pregnant, take vacations or need medical insurance). Imagine an industry that has many fewer humans doing hands-on work, and in which technology basically guarantees on time/on budget performance every time. Traditional jobs will be redefined or eliminated altogether. We’ve seen this movie before: it is essentially what happened to bank tellers when ATMs were invented.

If this sounds dreary, it need not be. Technology will close some doors, to be sure, but it will open many others. The real beneficiaries will be “creative class” workers who are not afraid of exploring unknown territory and who are energized by working at the margin of change. A key concept of this brave new world is “convergence”— finding ways to connect experts from disparate disciplines to devise truly new solutions to problems. This requires design thinking. New building components (such as nano-materials or even biologically-based, self-renewing materials), new fabrication techniques (including large scale 3-D printers that can produce whole buildings), and new ways of organizing and leading teams (which will change the “sociology of design”) are all in play.

Who will be tomorrow’s design leaders? They will come from very diverse backgrounds. They will be networked virtually and on a global scale. They will be funded by non-traditional sources of capital, like Kickstarter. They will work at lightning speed. They will be collaborative by nature, and will not be bound by convention. They will be first and foremost problem-seekers, confident that just about any problem can be tackled by design thinking. Above all, they will be focused on results.

 Sources:  Wall St. Journal, April 18-19, 2015 New York Times, April 19, 2015 Metropolis magazine, April 2015 Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson, 2012

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.