“The built environment is an $8 trillion per year industry that is still basically artisanal.” So said Astro Teller, head of the Google X research lab, during a speech at South by Southwest last week. Reading that sentence in isolation, you might assume that Teller intended it as praise, that he was was applauding the field of architecture for maintaining its heritage of craftsmanship, skill, and artistry. But you would be wrong. Being “still basically artisanal” is, for Teller, a great flaw. It’s a symptom of both a debilitating lack of software-mediated routinization and a tragic superfluity of quirky human talent. Artisanality is a problem that Google is seeking to solve. One Google X project, Teller explained, is intended “to fix the way buildings are designed and built by building, basically, an expert system, a software Genie if you will, that could take your needs for the building and design the building for you.” By getting all those messy and outmoded artisans out of the picture, replacing them with tidy software algorithms, we’ll be able to avoid the inefficiency and waste that inevitably accompany human effort.
But, Teller went on to say, the Genie project has run into a problem: “We found out that the system we envisioned couldn’t connect into the infrastructure and ecosystems for building the built environment because that software infrastructure is piecemeal and often not software at all but just knowledge trapped in the heads of the experts in the field.” Let me repeat that last bit: “not software at all but just knowledge trapped in the heads of the experts in the field.” Quelle horreur! The goal now, he said, is to take “a huge step back” and lay “a software foundation and data layer” that will allow Google to liberate all that head-imprisoned knowledge and eradicate the pestilence of artistry once and for all.
Image: Mark Moz.