How artificial intelligence will reshape civil engineering

The next industrial revolution is dawning – powered not by steam but artificial intelligence and big data. Arup’s Tim Chapman looks at what this will mean for the industry.

As computers are taught to think and solve more complex problems, the impact will be felt from the tools engineers use to the skills required.
As computers are taught to think and solve more complex problems, the impact will be felt from the tools engineers use to the skills required.
  • Updated: 30 August 2016
  • Author: Tim Chapman, Director Infrastructure Design Group, Arup

The UK construction industry is being challenged to make huge improvements in its performance, in terms of the speed of project delivery, out-turn cost and contributing to reductions in national carbon emissions.

Fortunately, these challenges come at a time when technology is rapidly advancing, and the next industrial revolution is dawning. This second machine age is seeing machines that can think rather than just do.

Just as machine-brawn made vast earth-moving operations so much simpler from the middle of the 19th century, so thinking machines will make many intellectual tasks so much easier in the 21st century.

We are used to computers and their ability to do tasks for us – the speed of communications has vastly sped up over the past quarter century as email has replaced fax and telex. But the power of computers to change our industry is just starting. BIM is already occurring, implemented successfully on many projects, enabling electronic models of new schemes to be collaboratively shared and developed, saving time and improving deliverability. However films like Ex Machina shows us that current technology can achieve vastly more when the full powers of Artificial Intelligence begin to be effectively harnessed.

Big data revolution

Artificial intelligence will be the next huge wave to engulf our industry – using the vast data banks built up on our projects, supplemented by terabytes of easily accessible data from providers like Apple and Google and a myriad of other data providers that will emerge. Once we start to detect patterns and learn from these experiences and processes, then we will enable computers to be vastly more helpful – and to make our industry vastly more efficient.

Big data style data crunching can reveal hugely insightful patterns that we humans may suspect but can’t prove – so machines will hugely assist our engineering judgement. The sorts of revolution that have happened in retail and financial services will be visited on us, for good and for bad.

The good and the bad

The good will be excellent – with a huge number of routine project planning and design tasks made so much slicker, with efficiencies feeding directly into construction processes too. The bad things will be more insidious and will need our professional institutions to ponder hard on how they should influence the future.

Artificial Intelligence will render many of the simpler professional tasks redundant – potentially replacing entirely many of the tasks by which our younger engineers and other professional learn the details of our trade. Experienced engineers probably have less to fear, at least initially, but we need to decide how we may form and develop the experienced engineers of tomorrow, if the tasks for younger engineers of today have been computerised. Later, as expert systems replace human thinking and process improvement steps up several gears, we also will need to reconsider the ethics that underlie our profession, as we code computers to replace much of what we now call engineering judgement exercised by humans.

BIM, drones and autonomous vehicles are today’s technologies for which we can foresee many opportunities tomorrow. Artificial Intelligence is tomorrow’s technology that will shake every aspect of our profession – mainly for great good, but not always. We need to consciously shape how such changes are introduced.

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