3 ways robots can shape the future of architecture—on earth and beyond

A new book, Towards a Robotic Architecture, explores ways AI beings could become cuddly caregivers on Earth or builders on Mars. Learn three ways robots can shape the future of architecture.

Rendering of Mars Ice House concept, highlighting a potential future use robotics in architecture

Jeff Link

April 25, 2018

min read
Living buildings and materials developed using robotic architecture and AI to re-create natural processes and properties.
Robotic design could integrate geometric complexity, material behavior, and fabrication at scales that match those in nature. Image courtesy of Neri Oxman.

With a nod to Vers Une Architecture, Le Corbusier’s seminal 1923 collection of essays, Towards a Robotic Architecture casts a hopeful eye on the discipline’s technological future. Co-edited by Mahesh Daas, dean of the School of Architecture & Design at the University of Kansas, and Andrew John Wit, assistant professor of digital practice at Temple University, the work frames the possibilities for robots and artificial intelligence (AI) in architectural design.

Daas has long been fascinated with the philosophical ramifications of AI technology. If the future progresses as he envisions it, a world in which robots are our co-designers, co-builders, and co-inhabitants is not that far away. “We are at the dawn of a new era, one in which life-forms of our own creation will walk and work among us,” Daas writes in the opening chapter. “They will help open unprecedented possibilities, challenge our world views, redefine the human condition, and, as part of these pervasive transformations, impact architecture.”

The digital fabrication of environmentally responsive biomaterials, the emergence of soft robots in assisted-care facilities, the robotic construction of extraterrestrial Mars habitats—these are just a few of the facets discussed in a brave new world imagined by Daas, Wit, and the contributors in their book.

1. AI-informed buildings will follow nature’s design

One unexplored and promising area of research, Daas writes, “lies in robotic buildings, furniture, and interiors.” Buildings, in other words, that behave like robots.

At the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Neri Oxman, Joshua Van Zak, Jorge Duro-Royo, and their research team in the Mediated Matter Group offer one example of how robotics in architecture might get there: a proof-of-concept prototype that brings living structures into the arena of digital fabrication.

In a chapter titled “Parametric Chemistry: Reverse Engineering Biomaterial Composites for Robotic Manufacturing of Bio-cement Structures Across Scales,” the researchers describe how the reconfiguration of two biopolymers (chitosan and cellulose) allowed them to “tune and optimize” bio-cement structures at scales “that approach—and often match—those of nature.” Imagine a two-story-tall, biodegradable, canoe-shaped lattice structure.

What’s novel about the project, according to Daas, is its use of artificial intelligence to re-create natural processes and properties. “Traditionally, materials have been treated as inert matter,” he says. “With the ability to infuse material with computation, the materials become intelligent in response to their environments or the functions they perform.”

2. Humans and soft, squishy robots will work in harmony

Soft robot interacting with young child
“Soft robots” will interact more naturally with humans, Daas says.

Daas notes that robots are already ubiquitous—on factory floors, in homes, in cars, in bodies, even in children’s playpens. They’re seen in computational technologies, such as building information management (BIM), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), computer numerical control (CNC) mills, 3D printers, and laser cutters, that have transformed architectural design and digital fabrication. But if Daas’s predictions hold true, robots of the future will be softer, more fragile, and less precise in their movements.

“It’s an interesting concept, soft robots,” Daas says. “When we think of robots, we tend to imagine hard, metallic components operating at high speed and with great strength. But as humans and other living things engage with robots more often, we will see these robots operate in a much more interactive way. They’ll be able to shake your hand without crushing it.”

And as robots become softer, their surroundings will likely evolve. Instead of being constricted to cages, as the powerful robots of many automotive manufacturing facilities are, Daas says they will roam more freely, working alongside people in softer, gentler environs. “Imagine the world of an infant. What is the world of an infant like? Soft, much more forgiving, less risky. We’ll need to provide that kind of cushion in the environments we create.”

3. Robotics in architecture will help colonize Mars

Project Mars Ice House rendering highlighting applications of robotics in architecture
A cutaway view of Mars Ice House. Image courtesy of Clouds Architecture Office (Clouds AO) and Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch).

Robotic architecture and construction of human settlements on Mars was once a far-fetched idea. Now a plan is beginning to take shape in robotic deployment models conceived as part of NASA’s Mars 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. “Going to Mars is impossible without robots,” Daas says. “A lot of what we’re going to be doing will require us to engage extensively with these technologies before setting foot on the planet.”

At the 67th annual International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced the company’s plan to send humans to Mars and start a colony, his architectural vision was of geodesic domes built from indigenous glass panes and carbon-fiber frames. Musk’s scenario is unlikely, at least initially, due to resource costs and other factors, according to Petr Novikov, cofounder and head of R&D at Asmbld in New York and author of Towards a Robotic Architecture’s final chapter, “Robotic Construction on Mars.”

What might hold promise, though, is an igloo-like translucent and fiber-reinforced ice house 3D printed by autonomous ice bots, as outlined in Novikov’s chapter. Known as “Project Mars Ice House,” the structure would serve as a habitable base waiting for astronauts when they arrive.

As Novikov explains in the chapter, two types of robots would build the structure. Semi-autonomous robots called WaSiBos would deploy first, dredging ice and Martian regolith and sintering a foundation. Then the ice bots would 3D print the whole structure, adding layers of ice, fibers, and aerogel as they climb.

Whether settlement on Mars becomes a reality, Daas says, the design and construction methods being developed and modeled are encouraging and might be adapted for use in resource-poor areas of this planet.

More importantly, though, it is not a time to fear such interstellar leaps but to embrace robotics in the future of architecture. “Major technological change has always brought a tremendous amount of anxiety—from steam engines to computers, and so on,” Daas says. “We are witnessing the same level of anxiety with robotics and AI. But we should approach these technologies with cautious optimism. The kind of global challenges we face cannot be dealt with without embracing new knowledge areas, and robotics and AI are an essential part of the solution.”

Jeff Link

About Jeff Link

Jeff Link is an award-winning journalist covering design, technology and the environment. His work has appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Architect and Dwell.

Recommended for you