The role of 'CAD monkey' work

Architects, engineers, and designers need downtime doing so-called CAD monkey1 work to think about their decisions and the actions they are taking. (The repetitive and monotonous tasks that require little effort from us.) Each design decision takes time to execute, and that time can extend from minutes to days, weeks, or months—at least when humans carry them out.

Panagiotis Michalatos told me something along these lines as we walked down Sumner Road in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in late 2016 or early 2017, as I thought about my master's thesis topic. I wanted to streamline the generation of textures for architectural drawings and couldn't imagine what was coming. I ended up playing with the early generative machine-learning algorithms, mainly Pix2Pix, and training bots to color my drawings.

Back in 2017, I wrote that artificial intelligence was transforming the way we interacted with machines. "By curating a dataset, the designer is the programmer. Choosing the right set of images becomes part of the design process."

We've seen huge leaps in generative AI and a transition from GANs to transformers, from Pix2Pix and StyleGAN to diffusion models like DALL·E and Midjourney. It's crazy and exciting. But also scary.

The faster AI turns, the slower we become.

When artificially intelligent systems know it all, we're burdened by the task of coming up with questions, constantly.

Today, we don't need to curate a dataset, because most of the world's publicly available knowledge is compressed and easily retrievable in machine learning models that can give you an answer in less than a second.

Think about your next prompt.

Prompting a large language model—an LLM—has become part of the design process, and potentially part of the work of any knowledge worker—programmers, doctors, teachers, students, scientists, etcetera. LLMs are here to stay. And due to the simple fact that they can do many, many different tasks for us, they will.

Then why do we need CAD-monkey work? Because we need time to think and would be exhausted if we gave into the machine, constantly begging us for input, for yet one more prompt.

We've spent years clicking numerous times for computer software to do what we want. Now we can chat with an AI that gets the job done for us. We just need to craft the right instructions for the machine to understand what we want.

  1. According to ChatGPT (Nov 14, 2023), the term CAD monkey is "a colloquial expression used in the architecture, engineering, and design industries that refers to professionals or interns who are primarily engaged in the repetitive and often monotonous task of drafting or modeling using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. The term "monkey" in this context implies that the work is relatively unskilled or does not fully utilize the professional's training and abilities, as it often involves executing straightforward, routine tasks that do not require significant creative input or decision-making." 

November 14, 2023
Nono Martínez Alonso

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