AI-powered “Digital Twins” set to populate  a brave new world of architecture

AI-powered “Digital Twins” set to populate a brave new world of architecture

24 Mar 2020 News

When constellations of fireworks crisscross the skies over Beijing’s Olympic Park to open the 2022 Winter Games, one architectural masterwork illuminated by the pyrotechnics will shine above all others.

The National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube, site of the 2008 Olympic swimming and diving championships, is now being transformed into one of the globe’s most brilliant outposts to be guided by artificial intelligence.

While being frozen into the Ice Cube, with a massive rink to host the arctic curling competitions, the structure is being outfitted with a matrix of sensors – all connected to the Internet and flashing data back to an AI-enhanced control system.

Beijing’s Water Cube is being reinvented with an AI-driven Digital Twin. 
© Arup / Marcel Lam Photography

Designers and coders at the global engineering powerhouse Arup say they have created a next-generation Digital Twin for the Water Cube that intertwines converging streams of new technologies. 

Their Neuron Digital Hub Platform acts as the brain for the virtual Cube – a 3D building information model that is linked with its physical twin via networks of digital strands: data from the building’s sensors is analyzed by the platform via deep learning and neural networks, and commands on optimizing energy usage or averting a predicted failure are issued by the cloud-based twin.  

Arup engineers and architects co-designed the Water Cube in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, so its digital team had a treasure house of virtual models to enhance with breakthroughs in cloud computing, machine learning and visualization software.

Basing the interactive simulation and Neuron Platform in the cloud means that the Cube’s operator can monitor and manage the structure from virtually any point on the planet – even from a jet racing between two continents – using a Web-connected laptop as a remote controller.

IoT devices embedded throughout the Ice Cube will send real-time updates on the level of CO2 in each subsector of the structure, along with precise measurements of PM2.5 – airborne micro-pollutants that could threaten athletes and spectators. 

Arup’s digital team in Hong Kong says “air pollution is a major concern in Beijing,” but so far hasn’t spelled out which countermeasures Neuron’s AI wizardry might order to ensure a pristine atmosphere for the Cube-hosted Games.

The Neuron Platform, the group predicts, “will change the way buildings are designed and constructed, operated and maintained.”

The Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium will host the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games. 
© Michael Siebert

Arup’s digital designers add that the Water Cube represents a pilot project that could lead to more commissions to create hyper-tech Digital Twins for other Chinese sports venues. Arup engineers were partners with the Swiss studio Herzog and de Meuron in the building of Beijing’s National Stadium, or Bird’s Nest, which will reprise its 2008 Olympics role in hosting the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2022 Winter Games.

A parallel team at Arup says it is now creating a digital clone of the entire enclave of Hong Kong with an ever-changing sim called Neuron City. The group is mapping people, places and activities to a virtual cosmopolis, complete with its own operating system. 

The group has already created a dynamic city information model that will rely on data streams from the real-life Hong Kong to make AI-generated predictions and recommendations on running the former British colony.

Advances in perfecting cloud-based simulations spearheaded by the London-headquartered Arup and by other leaders in the technological avant-garde are being unveiled across the globe.

In the Netherlands, Arup engineers and software developers are constructing a Digital Twin for a Dutch government outpost in The Hague aimed at using AI to find new ways to make the structure energy-neutral. The ultimate goal, they say, is to design brilliant twins "that can program themselves" and issue ever more accurate forecasts of a building's or a mega-city's future.

In North America, the Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs is creating a sophisticated virtual city to guide its proposed remaking of a section of Toronto's waterfront. Sidewalk's tech-saturated city-within-a-city along Lake Ontario, set to be "the world's first all-timber high-rise neighborhood," would be studded with Web-connected sensors beaming information and images to a digital double.

Meanwhile, Dr. Michael Grieves, the scientist who first proposed the building of Digital Twins at the beginning of the new cyber-century, says their increasing intelligence and autonomy will help them take over the world of architecture.

With the still-evolving Neuron platform, created in the image of humanity’s own thinking and learning processes, “Arup is clearly on the leading edge” in charting the future of this trend, says Grieves, chief scientist at the Florida Institute of Technology.

Arup engineers have helped create some of the most futuristic architecture outposts worldwide, including the CCTV Tower in Beijing by Rem Koolhaas. © Iwan Baan

In the 2010s, Grieves joined forces with technological seers in NASA to design Digital Twins for spacecraft that could double as habitats on other worlds. “We did create a Digital Twin of the Orion capsule,” the starship that could bring the first astronauts to Mars, he says.

His chief partner in promoting the launch of digital clones in aerospace, John Vickers, Principal Technologist at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, says: “Digital twins and robotics will be critical technologies as a key part of the return to the Moon and serve as a foundation for going to Mars.”

“A good example is NASA’s recently completed 3D Printed Habitat Challenge to remotely build a habitat suitable for the Moon, Mars or beyond using resources available on-site in those locations,” he adds.

“All of our future spacecraft,” Vickers says, “including a Mars habitat and associated robotics will include a network of sensors linked with their digital twins via a cloud platform held either on Earth or in space.”

Now, Dr. Grieves says, breakthrough technologies combined to create digital doppelgängers for rockets are being tapped and adapted by avant-garde architects.

He predicts AI-guided Digital Twins for architecture projects will prove so advanced they will ultimately dominate building design and operation.

As the 2020s unfold, he forecasts, more and more experimental architecture ateliers will create digital buildings that rely on expanding, super-speed intelligence to operate and optimize their physical twin. Mainstream studios will be forced to follow in their wake.

Like Homo sapiens who assimilated or replaced more archaic species of humans while spreading out across the continents, Digital Twins are likely to reign supreme around the world in times ahead.

“Any architectural firm that doesn’t embrace the Digital Twin,” Dr. Grieves predicts, “simply won’t survive."

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