Encounter with the future
  1. Home
  2. Architettura
  3. Encounter with the future

Encounter with the future

Edited By Virginia Cucchi - 5 December 2016

Robotics today is ubiquitous: an inescapable part of ordinary life, it permeates our daily habits and surrounds our environment, providing a multitude of services. Robotics and automata conjure up images of a future full of unexpected mirabilia. What will happen to our planet in 2030 with these super-sophisticated technologies? We have come a long way since the first prototypes of automation, the “Flute and Tambourine Players” and the “Digesting Duck”, the revolutionary mechanical creatures of Jacques de Vaucanson, the 18th century French inventor. Are humans now destined to become slaves of technology on account of their insatiable appetites? We try to imagine a world where machines can co-exist in symbiosis with humans, where humans could become more redundant than robots (WALL-E, Andrew Stanton, 2008). A world where “replicants” portray stronger human sentiments than men (Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982) and where a man (Her, Spike Jonze, 2013) can fall in love with an operating system, or androids take decisions about the humans they shall take care of (2046, Wong Kar-wai, 2004). With the latest technological must-have and innovative software ever edging towards bio-mimicry, we are closer to stretching human limits, producing humanized machines that smile, predict human taste, learn foreign languages, and show emotion and facial expressions. Machines are now capable of emotional processes. Their artificial intelligence programs and efficient algorithms are designed to adapt and evolve, seemingly able to recognize our requests. There is practically no discipline today - including architecture - that does not apply robotics in these “embodied softwares”. Robotic construction allows a wide range of new processes and strategies to design and produce buildings. Robota means “serf-labor” or “slave of work”, an automaton replacing the human hand and performing tedious, arduous and dangerous tasks. As a result, humans now have the luxury of focusing on intelligent decisions. Modular construction, off-site implementation, on-site production and assemble/dissemble will become part of a systematically controlled function. Architects, supported by progressive and innovative tech tools, will not only recast and revolutionize the workforce of construction but also explore and effectively experiment a new esthetic. Recent robots perform complex tasks that have radically changed scales, materials production, pre-fabrication of components, on site construction, facility management, rehabilitation and waste recycling. With today’s competitive market, the use of these machines allows the profession to achieve cheaper costs, faster implementation and complex activities. Homes - now “smart” - regulate themselves. New retirement residences provide independence and assistance for an aging population. Household domotics enhances family welfare. Modular construction retains flexibility in assembly and design, saving time and cost. Although demographic statistics show higher life expectancies, the working hours of the middle-aged citizen have become ever more intensive. Caring for the elderly appears an increasing necessity. But by Incorporating home automation and software, aging societies can live more autonomously. ADL houses with biosensors monitor vital signs, signaling untoward situations. The main living spaces of our homes adjust temperature to meet individual comfort requirements. The latest functions even provide personalized mobility and assistance service. Thomas Bock, Professor at TU Munich, with a doctorate in construction automation and robotics from Tokyo University, conducts research into all stages of a building’s life cycle, from design and construction through to renovation and demolition. He is a member of the Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. He holds an honorary professorship at NPI and is an honorary doctor of SWSU. What drew you to study, research and specialize in robotic constructions? When I was twenty-two years old, only a student, I built my own house. It was extremely hard work! I had to mix the concrete, carry the bricks, assemble the whole wall, and place the foundations. I began to think what could be done to make the job easier. By chance I had seen a robot in a car factory in Stuttgart and so I thought: “What if we used robots to build a home?” If I hadn’t had this first experience with my own hands, I probably would not have gone into this area of automation. Machines or robots can do the heavy work, while we focus on more intelligent, smart tasks. Can we speak about a 4th Industrial Revolution? Will bionic builders be a large, if not integral part of tomorrow’s worksites? I don’t like the term 4th Industrial Revolution. I am little skeptical. It is just a logical combination: from master builders like Brunelleschi to innovation in machine and computer technology. Think about aircrafts. We have nice engine design, elaborate technologies to provide comfort and the integration of multifunctional activities, from selecting a movie to adjusting our seat, which act as a small robot. What is important is how to combine different disciplines in order to come up with a new solution. It is not robotics as a tool in itself that is key, but how, say, a building can become a complete automotive object, or a piece of furniture can become a robot. It’s a different concept. This is the way different disciplines could help us in our daily lives. And it’s not just about how to make our future lives easier and more efficient but how to improve human welfare. Yet to enjoy this new lifestyle, we must be more creative and innovative than in the past. It’s a question of creativity. I mix many different disciplines, from the space to the mechanical industry, just like Bach, the composer. If I refer to Bach, I don’t intend to allude to beauty but to the concept of functionality as described by Vitruvius in the sense of utilitas, firmitas and then venustas. In his ten books Vitruvius wrote: “First architecture must be useful, then stable and finally beautiful.” This must be the true way to build something useful for our aging society. You are working in a fascinating but alarming field, robotics: an exciting sector whose discoveries are catapulting us toward unknown prospects for the future. Would you say, from a rational perspective, that manual work will eventually be replaced by robotic autonomy? This is possible but it is also an advantage. Try to consider what happened in the agricultural industry. In the early years, everybody was a farmer; we all grew our own food. Now only 3% of us are farmers and they have become so productive they can supply enough food to feed the whole population. This will happen also in the manufacturing and construction industry, and new jobs/opportunities will appear as a result of these changes. For example, the Japanese have built one of the first wooden puppet automata: an urban robot designed so that it makes some mistakes. They are not afraid of the robot. It doesn’t threaten them because it’s not perfect. You can understand the idea of Japanese beauty if you observe the tea ceremony. The most beautiful cup you can drink tea from has small defects. The pottery masters make them slightly flawed on purpose. So even if something is not perfect, like the robot or the teacup, it is beautiful. It’s a different notion. We, on the other hand, have different values, a different philosophy. Yet if we learn not to be afraid, we will be able to develop and create new professions. According to Kondrativ’s social technical wave, people first mined by hand, then they were replaced by the steam engine that could pump the water out of the mines until finally the process became mechanized. At each step something changes. Knowing what happened in the past allows us to consider the next steps for the future. If we don’t start planning, something new will happen anyway and people will start a revolution. So I think it’s better to prevent that by knowing which sectors could disappear and create new industries still unknown to us. It’s an advantage. These social technical waves that have moved from the steam engine to electricity, chemistry, the car industry and finally to the computer have all progressively taken place. But they can also cause wars or revolutions if people aren’t prepared. Now we are prepared and I am not so pessimistic. If people start resisting progress, then it will become difficult. If we cannot be ahead of counties like China and America, we won’t be able to compete. These futuristic technologies will open up new possibilities in terms of a new aesthetic and new construction forms. Will this greater freedom for experimentation be harder to control? Will this lead to the danger of futuristic architectural forms? Of course it will influence them. If you want to combine the free forms of parametric design with robotics, you will have to split the components. For example, huge 3D components have to be produced in modular form and assembled on site. A façade designed by Paul Noritaka Tange, the son of Kenzo Tange, is just such an example. The problem arises is when the architects design without any knowledge of robotics. They produce a large construction using traditional technology and traditional formwork. This is not too good since at the end of its lifecycle the building is no longer of any use and the embedded energy will be lost, leaving demolition the only alternative. So when we talk of new geometries or parametrics, we need to consider a modular system that can be combined with robotics. In that way you will have the best of both worlds. Each component can be different with a different shape, prefabricated or assembled in more parts, and with a robotic system you focus only on joining them together. The sky’s the limit. These technologies could change the architectural aesthetic in the way bionic design has done, following the flow of forces. When I was a student of Professor Otto Frei, the approach was close to biomimicry. His design, as you can see, was inspired by nature, by the flow of the forces, and now the same thing can be applied here. Do you think the role of the architect will change in light of these technological advances? When new technology arrives, as in the case of the first car, it looks like a horse-drawn carriage without the horse, and then it takes maybe 70 years to look like the car we know today. It takes generations to find a new aesthetic and a new beauty related to the tool or production technology. It is all about the tool of the master builder, or in this case the robot or maybe these 3D printers for the future. What about the economic impact of these latest technologies? What investments will drive the use of automation? And what return will it have? Robotics is an expensive technology and people will be against it at first, but the buildings will be built very fast. You will not need to pay so much interest to the bank or wait so long for a return on your investment. In the end, in the longer term, it may be more expensive with robotic construction but you have to consider that if you construct a building in the traditional way, taking the usual three years, if the market changes, you may find there is no longer any demand for the building, and you will not be able to rent or sell it. So it’s better to build very fast in the first year with a robot that costs 20-30 percent more. A house could be built in a day and high-rises in two to three months. In terms of modularity too, there is also an ecological and recycling benefit: you will not have to demolish the building but rather dissemble it piece by piece. Interview by Virginia Cucchi

© Maggioli SpA • THE PLAN • Via del Pratello 8 • 40122 Bologna, Italy • T +39 051 227634 • P. IVA 02066400405 • ISSN 2499-6602 • E-ISSN 2385-2054