Shapes of things before my eyes just teach me to despise.—The Yardbirds
Much as I hate to, I am about to reverse myself on a position that I’ve expressed in this column a number of times. Whether in dead seriousness or while indulging in some tongue-in-cheek humor, I have always maintained that construction estimating offers a number of benefits and opportunities that students who are searching for a rewarding path might seriously explore as an alternative to living in their parents’ basement. But a number of commentaries I’ve been perusing recently have given me reason to reconsider this. These articles involve the pros and cons of the inevitable introduction of artificial intelligence into our lives. I might easily substitute “intrusion” for “introduction” here, because in spite of the many benefits that advocates of AI are touting, there are some serious downsides that need to be considered—downsides that may well affect the survival of our profession. And, like it or not, here they come.
For those who have been sleeping in the Catskills for the past 20 years, AI is a phenomenon in which computers are able to not only crunch and regurgitate mountains of data, but are capable of mimicking human cognitive functions—that is, they are learning machines. In fact, the theory and rapid development of AI has raised some serious concern within the scientific community about the possible consequences of machines eventually becoming self-aware. Of course, that notion has provided a number of writers and film producers with some wildly popular material. But no, I am not going to explore the potential for an apocalyptic future, so we won’t be searching here for Sarah Connor, or robots named Sonny. What troubles me most immediately are two items that the majority of these articles I’ve been reading agree upon: That the rapid development of robotics, and AI will result in the net loss of some 400,000 jobs in the United States alone, and that this will occur over the next five to 10 years. That’s a real eye-opener for those of the Rip Van Winkle persuasion (myself included).
Now, before I connect the dots to the fate of thousands of bidmeisters, allow me to present some of the pros and cons associated with the development of AI. They will help convey a clearer path to my upcoming projections.
Advantages to the development of AI include the following:
Productivity. Perhaps the single greatest benefit stemming from the advent of AI will be its capability to assume a multitude of mundane tasks, thus freeing humans to spend more time in modes of exploration and creativity.
Tirelessness. A machine can run continuously, 24/7, without a rest, unlike humans who must recuperate after 8 to 10 hours of constant work.
Accuracy. With conclusions being derived from vast amounts of stored data and algorithm sets specifically aimed at the type of question presented, error in an AI decision is virtually unheard of (or so they say).
Expediency. Rapid decision-making can be enhanced by removing the hindrance of human emotion, which is often an obstacle to instantaneously logical conclusions.
If we stopped here, we might conclude that the development of AI can only be a boon to mankind. Unfortunately, there’s another side to it. These are some of the disadvantages to the development of AI:
Expense. Installation, operation and maintenance of AI programs will be cost prohibitive to all but the wealthiest corporations. Current costs average in the high six figures to start.
Lacks Creativity. AI decisions are based on analytic processes. At present, AI programs are not capable of generating original creativity.
Power. The advent of AI is sure to shift the power dynamic to those who develop and wield its impact. AI is likely to centralize power in the hands of an already powerful few.
Lacks Humanity. AI does not recognize complex values that civilizations have developed.
Displacement. Projections vary, but conservative ones predict that AI will add roughly 500,000 jobs to the market, but will eliminate over 900,000—a net loss of 400,000 jobs!
Applying this to the construction industry—and specifically to preconstruction, I have arrived at some not-so-far-fetched conclusions. Regrettably, my considered predictions are somewhat gloomy. Drawing from the information outlined above, I believe that over the next decade, architectural firms will procure, utilize, develop and integrate AI applications into their activities to such a degree that it will reconfigure the entire process of project delivery from top to bottom. It’s such a good fit, it’s hard to refute. Consider the following: Architectural firms are notoriously wealthy and best endowed with the resources to easily overcome the cost obstacle. Moreover, architects tend to see themselves as creative wizards who are unfairly saddled with the dull burden of translating their visions into mundane terms of constructability. AI can alleviate that burden for them, thus freeing them to pursue aesthetics. But clearly expansion of AI will not stop within their own scope. Armed with the power of AI, architects will absorb all the functions of contractors, relegating us all to positions of servitude to the elite in our industry.
Next month, I will further advance the discussion of how AI will revolutionize preconstruction, and what this will mean to construction estimators of all walks.
Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.