By Brian Williamson
The robots are coming. The concept of Artificial Intelligence is no longer confined to the lurid pages of science fiction. The threat is real, and the construction industry looks likely to be joining drivers and secretaries in the front line.
Senior people in the sector know that there will be no stopping the rise of the machines once critical mass is achieved and they are gaming scenarios which will turn the threat into a once-in-many-generations opportunity.
And seldom has the sector had greater need of the efficiencies and savings which AI-driven technologies can create. Governments on both sides of the border are pressing construction companies to solve the housing crisis by supplying hundreds of thousands of new homes.
This unprecedented demand comes at a time of acute skills shortages, exacerbated by the number of talented workers from Europe responding to the changed political environment by returning home. The exodus has already begun.
The government wants the construction industry to recruit more than half a million people to step into the breach. But does that make any kind of sense – fiscal or logistical – if the robot workers of the future are just around the corner?
AI means that machines exhibit their own intelligence with algorithms to solve problems using inputted data. By harnessing robotics, construction managers can revolutionise routine tasks that were once completed by humans, such as bricklaying.
Robots can lay thousands of bricks a day, they don’t take breaks, they never get tired of the same repetitive movements – and their vans never break down because they are on site 24 hours a day.
There is also the development of autonomous site machinery, which allows the driver to be outside of the vehicle when it is operating at dangerous heights or in awkward positions. Using sensors and GPS, the vehicle can calculate the safest route.
Other areas in which AI will come into its own include:
- Project management, where the analysis of big data – which just keeps getting bigger – will change thinking about how projects are conceived.
- Design, which already depends heavily on AI and which has embraced its fascinating possibilities.
- Quantity surveying, which will become increasingly reliable and accurate.
- Compliance, which will benefit from access to real-time geographical information systems.
But before construction industry professionals throw up their hands in despair at what many may see as a dystopian future with humans relegated to the status of attendants, we should recall the vitally important role people will still play.
For instance, each robot bricklayer will need two human workers in full-time roles to operate the machine – one feeding the bricks and another assisting with difficult angles, smoothing the mortar and clearing up.
Workforces of the future will have to learn new skills to keep the machines running at peak performance which companies will need to remain competitive.
And this raises another issue – if everyone in the construction industry travels down the same robotics road, does this mean that all companies will be the same and that all choice will be removed?
If we even approach that scenario, then another human contribution will become invaluable – the real, flesh and blood executives who kick-start the front end of the whole process by building a rapport with the client.
Their skills in presenting an unanswerable case, keeping in touch until the time is right and reflecting the client’s needs in a proposal will never be matched by a machine. Only committed, enthusiastic people can pitch in a way that ensures the client eventually believes there is no construction company in the world but theirs.
I recently spoke to two construction industry veterans – both called Robert, by the way – who are convinced AI will enhance rather than destroy the sector. It is the Roberts, not the Robots, who will win the day.
Brian Williamson is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Kissing With Confidence.