Elizabeth Chu Richter
Photography: Carl Bower Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, 2015 AIA President

Ex Machina is the latest Hollywood film to raise the alarm about the alleged threat posed by artificial intelligence. As a member of a knowledge-based profession, I ought to be nervous about being replaced by a robot or at least an app. I’m not.

Experience suggests there is not one kind of intelligence or knowledge, but at least two. On one hand, explicit knowledge is the outcome of research and experimentation. It can be tested and, most importantly, replicated. It lends itself to textbook precision. Having access to this kind of knowledge about resiliency, health, aging, and urbanization—to cite just a few things—opens the way for architects to participate credibly with other professions, industry, and government whenever these issues are discussed.

Tacit knowledge is different. Typically instinctive, subjective, and perhaps even imprecise, you can’t transmit it to someone through a book or a conversation. Tacit knowledge informs your decisions and frames your perspective on the world—and thus it is no less essential than explicit knowledge for architects or anyone else.

It’s this tacit knowledge that separates us from machines—the thing that empowers us to make decisions that are based on compassion as much as they are based on logic.

I recall the care given by a physician to a family member of mine who was gravely ill from mesothelioma. Morphine had been given to ease his pain, but the drug had left him unresponsive. Should a feeding tube be inserted to prolong the inevitable, or should nature be allowed to take its course? No one in the family wanted to make that decision.

The doctor, a friend of many years, came by the house to visit his patient. He sat by the bed and began by gently asking the dying man if he recognized him, then quietly and gently spoke of their long friendship and significant events in the patient’s life—his marriage, his children, and his grandchildren.

Gradually the dying man began to speak with those of us gathered around his bed. His words had a clarity he had not shown in weeks. Eventually he made the decision himself not to have a feeding tube inserted.

There’s no doubt that the doctor struggled to reconcile what he knew from years of study about prolonging his patient’s life, and what he knew in his heart about the  importance of listening to his patient’s wishes. Tacit knowledge comes from a lifetime of listening to the needs and dreams of those we serve. It’s the wisdom that gives lasting and meaningful value to our work.