You may not lose your job in the construction industry to a robot this year or next, but you may find artificial intelligence [AI] creeping into your responsibilities sooner than you think.
AI is, very generally, the algorithm-based technology which allows machines to learn and perform cognitive tasks that normally require human intelligence. These tasks may involve visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, prediction and translation between languages. You likely have a smart phone that can translate foreign languages into English for you, which is a perfect example of an everyday use of AI.
A common misconception is that AI can perform multiple tasks at the same time. This isn't the case—at least, not yet—but it's one of the reasons the mention of AI fuels speculation and fear. While a language processing AI can convert someone’s handwritten word “cat” into printed text, it could not pick a cat out of a lineup of animals or an image. However, advancements in this field have expanded and jobs once considered exclusively human are beginning to be automated. What does this mean for the construction industry?
THE FUTURE IS NOW
AI is making its way into more consumer products and software all the time. In the coming years, products will need to have an AI edge to compete. Software companies are taking a close look at the construction industry’s historically low productivity rate, and we are seeing more solutions aimed at solving our challenges. Currently, there is software available that uses computer vision to read construction documents and details—creating hyperlinks between the two. The same machine-learning technique is also used in image and video classification—making sorting and searching and even catching potential safety hazards much easier.
Extended reality technologies, such as augmented reality [AR] and virtual reality [VR], aim to put everyone on the same digital page by helping us experience design and intent before ever breaking ground. If you have spoken to a robot when you called customer service then you’ve experienced a chatbot, AI that can work 24-hours-a-day to provide information in a conversational manner ... which brings us to the crux of the AI revolution that is unfolding. Is AI [e.g. chatbots or visionbots] going to replace humans or assist us by freeing us from mundane activities [I’m looking at you, email inbox] and increasing our productivity?
I believe if we approach AI with a flexible mindset it can be turned towards designing a better future, finding a common human dialog and harnessing the power of AI for an inclusive global good. Overly idealistic? Possibly. But I encourage you to imagine an A/E/C world in which an AI assistant can summarize action items from a meeting or an exoskeleton can adapt to movement and weight allowing construction workers go home pain-free each day. As AI technology progresses, those of us who spend too much time in an office can untether from our computers and figure out where that jobsite is that everyone's always talking about!
ADAPTATION IS KEY
On the one hand, we are afraid of AI replacing human workers and on the other hand, the construction industry is facing a very real labor shortage in the coming years. This is an opportunity to shape AI into tool that promotes humans’ abilities—to work smarter, not harder.
For the construction industry specifically, the replacement of human workers is further off than factory and food service job losses. The agility and common sense required of a human worker to safely and effectively navigate a jobsite is currently outside the range of AI and robotics. While we won’t see humanoid robotics on the jobsite anytime soon, we will likely see simple task robots, such as an industrial version of a Roomba or an upgrade from our tri-pod mounted laser scanners to ground-roving scanners sooner rather than later.
The other side to this coin is the increasing use of prefabrication in construction—an obvious place to employ robots. Prefabrication in construction typically means assembling repeatable portions of a structure, such as the bathrooms for a hotel, at a manufacturing site and transporting those portions to the site for installation.
Rather than fearing the loss of construction jobs to a manufacturing line, we may consider this as a way for machines to do repetitive, injury-causing work while humans manage them and work on more complex tasks.
Innovation and creativity are necessary to keep construction projects moving forward and for now, this is a human led advantage. Researching how we apply AR and VR technology to educate those new to the industry and help them over the learning curve of their respective trade will simultaneously make them and the industry more productive. AI advancements have the potential to shift the construction industry into positive productivity growth for the first time in decades by enhancing our human workforce while avoiding the labor shortage.
Advancements in exoskeletons are showing promising potential to alleviate repetitive stress injuries and better protect our work force. The ability of assistive devices, especially “smart” wearable devices, could prevent injuries and loss of hours worked. They could potentially limit liability if L+I claims are mitigated by prescriptive use of exoskeletons. With foresight and research, construction companies can care for their workforce and assist in eliminating some of the stresses which lead to injuries or unwanted early retirements.
DESIGN + CONSTRUCT A BETTER FUTURE
The bottom line is, you may not see a humanoid robot working on the jobsite in the near future, but we are already seeing changes in the way buildings are constructed and delivered. Advancement in materials, robotics chops learned on assembly lines and warehousing operations, enhanced workers and a myriad of other possibilities will inform the new era of digital design, prefabrication and construction. The skillsets and knowledge required to participate in the construction industry 10-20 years from now may have some familiarity to a worker in the field today but it will likely look very different. Our job, in order to be successful, is to adapt and endeavor to harness the power of AI for a better future.
Indications that AI is gaining momentum in the construction industry is a hot topic right now in the news. If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few articles I recommend:
A Japanese construction company is working towards a human-robotic hybrid jobsite scheduled to begin construction in late 2018.
A home builder in Switzerland constructed a three-story timber framed house with robots.
A report by McKinsey & Company calls Artificial intelligence the “construction technology’s next frontier”.
Videos from the June 2018 MIT EmTech Next conference cover a wide range of robotic advancements in today's workforce. Stay tuned for a recap of this mind-blowing event.