The construction industry is just taking its first baby steps toward a digital future, so it might seem too science 'fictiony' to start talking about how artificial intelligence will play out in the industry. But, surprise, it's already happening—construction companies are exploring the sweet spots Artifical Intelligence (AI) has to offer.
Once you get past the hype and fear surrounding artificial intelligence it turns out that AI certainly is not the end of the world. It's not the end of everyone's job. It's not the end of humans interacting with humans. And, it's not the end of humans being in control. It will, however, increasingly affect construction businesses right along with many other technologies.
Like all these other new technologies, AI isn't going to suddenly change everything, especially in construction where hindsight dominates. So, what's really up with AI and construction?
It's Complicated, But Not So Much
AI's current, best use is to create the information you don't have from the information you do have.
AI is really a collection of traits. As described in MIT Sloan Management Review, its strengths include "deep learning, reinforcement learning, robotics, computer vision, and natural language processing." While movies show worlds where AI systems not only think, but are actually self-aware, this is still largely fiction. Right now, AI is in the prediction game, and it will probably be there for a while. What's it going to predict? AI's current, best use is to create the information you don't have from the information you do have.
People will still need to apply creativity, judgement and empathy to make AI fit human values and goals. So, at first, AI is mostly supplementing human effort. Here are some use cases.
Augment, Not Replace
AI is not automation. This is one of the biggest misconceptions leading to the doom and gloom predictions for humans. Today's version of AI is focused on augmenting human abilities—not replacing them.
Just consider all those job photos and videos that are cramming up your hard drives and your cloud storage. Can you find the right one when you need it quickly? AI is already at work in image recognition tools turning mountains of unstructured image files into searchable files.
On a larger scale, Microsoft's Project Brainwave processes 500 images per second, adding metadata to them so they are searchable. It takes just two-thousandths of a second to run the eight billion math operations needed to label a visual asset. It's doubtless you could find people willing to slave away at a computer all day long doing the same thing. However, AI can do this tiresome work in a matter of seconds, making this an excellent example of AI being an augmentor of human effort.
Design With Deep Insights
During the design phase of a construction project, AI could help designers understand how variable aspects of each proposed scope could potentially influence the project. If you think about all the variables affecting the scopes of projects, you can understand the challenges. Every structure has unique needs based on soil types and environmental history. There are zoning requirements and restrictions. There are code issues, and there are material and labor availability issues, just to name a few. By using AI to sort through scope scenarios, and predict the risks for each one, designers and builders can make better decisions early in the project's timeline.
Schedule with a Crystal Ball
In the construction phase, you often encounter scheduling issues. Suppose as you input information reflecting project progress, the AI is busy in the background, looking ahead to see critical path issues, resource issues and bottlenecks. You get notified two weeks in advance that your project is facing delays from a growing storm of resource constraints. By knowing that ahead of time, you can take steps to overcome those delays. AI just helped you do something better.
Banish the Repetitive and the Mundane
AI could automatically respond to RFIs, specifications and change order requests that meet preset criteria, taking over repetitive and mundane tasks. This way it could free you to focus on higher level tasks. Countless project processes will get quicker and more accurate when artificial intelligence informs them.
McKinsey reported that when AI is used to manage equipment maintenance, it reduces equipment downtime by 30 to 50 percent and extends equipment life by 20 to 40 percent. The AI predicts breakdowns using sensor data and alerts you when it's best to do maintenance.
How To and Learning
When AI is used to manage equipment maintenance, it reduces equipment downtime by 30 to 50 percent and extends equipment life by 20 to 40 percent.
AI can help people learn and perform tasks. It could also help them understand materials, how to install them, and even how to use a piece of equipment best. An AI-powered voice assistant could take a person through the steps of starting and operating a machine or tool. As they operate the machine, the AI could use the information it receives from machine sensors to improve operational efficiency or adjust for operator error.
An AI assistant could just as easily help a project manager reduce safety risks. Another AI tool might help a superintendent compile a damage claim by supplying critical details it has busily been collecting in the background.
AI to Future-Proof Your Business
Besides exploring AI uses for your own business, keep your eyes on AI's evolution. You need to know how AI will affect your business, but you also need to know how it is affecting other businesses you work with, even those in different sectors.
As those other businesses adopt AI, your business will be affected. From increased opportunities to more competition; when you understand how they may affect you, you can gain the advantages of AI while avoiding the downside.