Artificial intelligence is making a profound difference in our lives today, even if we don’t always realize its overwhelming presence around us. Many simple daily actions that most of us now take for granted – from unlocking our smartphones with a simple glance or touch, to calling our favorite digital voice assistant to set a reminder, check breaking news or listening to songs – all made possible by advancements in AI.
An equally profound transformation is currently underway in several industries with increasing acceptance and use of robots or AI-powered software agents. AI has been instrumental in the faster development of Covid-19 vaccines – the first set of vaccines were already being tested within three months of the virus being discovered – it would otherwise have taken several years to prepare a vaccine. Many other industries are already making massive use of AI for the automation of contact centers, factories or warehouses.
Even the construction industry – generally seen as a laggard in adopting advanced technologies – has been surprisingly quick to adapt to AI. The technology is particularly useful in the planning and design phases, where it enables advanced generative design capabilities for BIM or 3D modeling. In generative design, the computer generates several hundred design options based on certain predetermined goals or constraints.
The human designer is then free to choose the recommended design; or one of the others that best meets the project’s goals – and is essentially able to create the best possible design in a much shorter time. The net result is a higher quality design as well as considerable savings in designer time – which is then available for use in other projects.
When it comes to on-site construction, modern safety, monitoring and maintenance systems today use advanced AI capabilities to automatically predict and notify supervisors of adverse safety situations. In doing so, these systems minimize the role of human error in any unwanted incident.
Suffolk, a major US-based construction company, has developed a system that could potentially predict and therefore prevent accidents before they happen. The system incorporates a form of AI called deep learning and image recognition software, as well as cameras that regularly take photos of work in progress at an active construction site. The AI-based system then analyzes these images and compares what it “sees” to how things “should or shouldn’t be”, using historical data collected over a decade. When implemented to monitor a new construction site, it can quickly flag situations that seem likely to lead to an accident, such as workers not wearing safety equipment or working too close to a dangerous part of a machine.
Similar AI-enabled tools are also able to track the real-time interactions of workers, machines, and other objects on site, and can then alert supervisors or offsite managers of construction errors, productivity or willful ignorance of safety protocols. A few years ago, global construction technology leader Trimble announced a partnership with Hilti and Boston Dynamics to use robots for routine tasks in hazardous environments to improve the safety, efficiency and consistency of data entry. This ‘Spot’ robot has proven to be truly disruptive to the global construction industry, with a number of companies using it on site.
With such a wide range of applications and use cases, AI is poised to dramatically transform the engineering and construction industries in the months and years to come. A natural corollary of this transformation is fear and concern over job losses – after all, the construction sector is India’s second largest employer after agriculture – and provides direct or indirect livelihoods to nearly of 100 million people.
To be fair, technology-driven societal changes, like what we’re experiencing with AI and automation, always cause concern and fear, and with good reason. Over 200 years ago, a group of textile workers started a movement to oppose any form of machinery or automation, based on their perceived fear of losing their jobs. They became known as Luddites, and even today anyone who is afraid or unwilling to use new technology is often called a Luddite.
It is important to emphasize here that the fears of modern Luddites are not completely unfounded. A McKinsey report suggested that by 2030, intelligent agents and robots could replace up to 30% of current human labor worldwide, and “automation will displace between 400 and 800 million jobs by 2030”.
However, it is also undeniable that each major technological change ended up creating more jobs than were destroyed. This is because jobs or livelihoods never become obsolete; only specific skills become obsolete and no longer enough to earn a living. By the 1800s, the hand weaver was no longer needed in the modern textile mill; but he could train on a loom and still earn a living.
Particularly in the context of construction, the impact of AI on improving workplace safety and productivity is likely to be orders of magnitude greater than its potential impact on job losses. . To put into perspective, consider that 38 deaths on construction sites are reported every day in India; which is 20 times higher than in Great Britain. India also has the highest accident rate in the world among construction workers, according to a recent study by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Even in a developed country like the United States, the construction industry routinely records five times more fatalities than any other industry, despite safety protocols and mandatory use of protective equipment.
Construction remains one of the most dangerous trades – and the majority of incidents are due to human error. Tools like Trimble CrewSight ensure that only trained, skilled and properly equipped workers for a given task are allowed to enter a job site. Integrated with AI and video surveillance, these tools can completely eliminate the role of human error in security incidents, creating a win-win situation for all stakeholders.
Ultimately, despite widespread concerns, AI or robots are unlikely to fully replace humans on construction sites in the near future. On the other hand, it will certainly help reduce jobsite injuries and accidents, or costly mistakes, and also make operations much more efficient. Leaders of construction companies should prioritize investments based on areas where AI can have the greatest impact on their company’s operations. We believe that the pioneers will not only generate tremendous business value for themselves in the short and long term, but will also set the direction for the industry for a comprehensive AI-led transformation.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise indicated, the author writes in a personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be taken to represent the official ideas, attitudes or policies of any agency or institution.