At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos (Jan 20 – 23), participants discussed the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, where we will see the barriers between man and machine dissolve. Just like the Industrial Revolution transformed people’s lives, the fourth revolution has the potential to impact the way we live and work. As technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics take over tasks that had previously been done by humans – what will this mean for the construction industry?

Understanding technologies and their impact

AI and robotics are developing rapidly, but to fully understand their potential, we must understand their benefits and limitations. To date, most robots have been used in manufacturing – but the range of tasks they can carry out is expanding. At the ALoft Hotel in San Francisco, robots deliver towels and toothpaste to guests’ rooms, while at Amazon, robots speed up the warehouse picking process. However, it is unlikely that they will take over all tasks. Some remain tricky for robots, for example walking over uneven terrain or folding a towel, which one study revealed took 25 minutes for a robot to complete.

While most people know what a robot is, few can say the same for AI. Siri, which operates on most iPhones, is a basic AI system that answers questions posed by the phone’s user. Winston, developed by IBM, is another example that is so smart he was able to beat the all-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings. Both work in a similar way, using algorithms to identify words and patterns that enable them to respond to questions or carry out learned behaviours. However, most are limited by the amount of data in their system and find it difficult to address questions posed in ways they do not recognise. Solving this issue is complex.

Winston the computer beats all-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings

Benefits for the construction industry

Despite the current challenges, robots and AI have the potential to benefit our businesses and our clients. Robots can access small or dangerous places on site, reducing the risk to employees. They can carry out repetitive tasks that people might not want to do because they are monotonous or logistics-based tasks like taking items from one place to another.

Once programmed, AI could carry out data entry, document control, meeting organisation and placing orders. It could improve our customer service by acting as a 24-hour helpdesk, dispatching the right people or equipment to resolve issues. However, it is not just about what technology can achieve on its own. Erik Brynjolfsson at MIT believes the real challenge is “…combining machines and humans in new ways to allow us to do tasks we previously couldn't have done.”1 With this in mind, the construction industry needs to identify opportunities to fuse machine and human skills to deliver optimal outcomes.

The dark side of robots

Like any new developments, concerns that these new technologies could match or surpass humans, create fear among some – including Stephen Hawking – while others are less pessimistic. Rollo Carpenter, creator of Cleverbot, says: "We will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realised."2

Certainly, one of the biggest and most imminent impacts of this technological revolution will be its effect on our workforce.

A recent WEF report estimates that 7 million jobs could go within five years as technology replaces humans in manufacturing, retail and administrative roles. In construction, this could be as many as 50% of workers. The reskilling and upskilling of today’s workforce will be critical to support employees through this transition and help them fill the new roles that will be created by technological advances. At Dusseldorf Airport, where a robotic valet parks cars, humans are needed to maintain and repair the robots that are much more complex than machines found in today’s offices and requiring a different skillset.

Although this may seem some years away, as an industry we cannot afford to ignore these developments. We need to explore these technologies now to reap the benefits and address the challenges we will face in the future.



About the author

Andrew Pryke

Managing Director - BAM Design

Andrew leads BAM Design’s architectural, structural and interior design departments, working closely with our construction and FM divisions.

He also leads the adoption, development and integration of Building Information Modelling (BIM) adoption at BAM, to increase efficiencies at all stages of design, construction and FM.

Andrew joined BAM in 2012, following 25 years as director and project lead at James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates and John McAslan and Partners. He has worked on projects such as The Lowry, Manchester, No 1 Poultry, London and The Royal Academy of Music, London.

A triathlete in his spare time, Andrew also applies his competitive spirit to working out the best design solutions for clients, integrating sustainable design, lean construction and full FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) solutions.

“We are developing BIM as a tool for greater collaboration between design, construction and facilities management, to deliver better buildings that are easier to manage and maintain, and perform better for their users over their entire lifecycle.”

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