Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…—Gene Raskin
I have no problem admitting that I frequently indulge in periods of pleasant nostalgia. It’s partly my nature to wistfully enjoy the simplicity and innocence of a bygone era. But I think that it’s also the product of a living over a long period of rapid and dramatic technological development. At the expense of dating myself, I can say that I’ve experienced the world of black-and-white television, lived through the introduction of the roaming cellphone over hard-wired rotary-dial relics, and now find myself immersed in a world of online communication in which I confess to having some difficulties with navigation. The advances I’ve seen in my lifetime are no less than dizzying, and it’s no wonder that I take a backward glance from time to time, if only to reestablish my bearings.
As often as not, I reflect back on the technological developments in my professional life that are likewise stunning. Those of us who are particularly long in the tooth recall a time when estimators ran a scale tape or a “wheel” over a set of paper plans and recorded our quantities by hand on a quadrille pad. In time, we were introduced to an electronic grid-board and a digitizer pen, but we were still hampered by using paper plans and further hindered with using two programs—one for takeoffs and another for calculating, which required transferring data from one to another. These days, we bidmeisters are blessed with technologies that are vastly advanced from those of a mere 20 years ago—programs that allow takeoffs to be done on the screen and are integrated with a data-driven estimating module, and some that are integrated with an accounting module. It makes one wonder what further developments could possibly lie in the road ahead (or lie in wait).
It has been four years—almost to the day—that I penned a series of three columns that appeared here, devoted to the advent of artificial intelligence and its probable impact on the AEC segment of the private sector. In those writings I stated and supported my considered opinion that the influence of AI over AEC, the overall construction industry and greater society in general, may not be all positive, as some would have us believe.
A recent article appeared to reinforce my contention and prompted me to revisit the topic. Apparently, in an open letter that cites potential risks to society, Tesla and Space X mogul, Elon Musk, plus Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, along with a large group of AI experts, are calling for a six-month pause in developing systems any more powerful than those currently deployed. The letter states, rather ominously, that AI developers are “locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one—not even their creators—can understand, predict or reliably control.” And while the spirit of the letter is well-intended, its effectiveness is questionable. Signatures conspicuously absent from the list are those of the Microsoft executives involved with the development of its latest system, Generative Pre-trained Transformer, fourth iteration (GPT-4). More troubling is the fact that lawmakers are not likely to dictate any regulations, thus leaving the proposed moratorium to be followed on a voluntary basis.
While I share the concerns of these signatories, my most immediate unease deals with the impact that rapid development of AI will have on the AEC, more specifically, construction estimators. To that end, I should recap the downsides that AI presents to us. The exorbitant cost of a specialized AI system makes them unavailable to all but the wealthiest corporations, thus centralizing power in the hands of the already rich and powerful (read: design teams). AI programs mimic human cognition but lack recognition of human emotional values. Last but not least, AI introduction into greater society will result in a net loss of no less than 400,000 jobs.
This last factoid is my primary concern, at least in the near-term. I fear that pre-construction managers, having benefitted greatly in the past by technological advances, will welcome the coming of AI with open arms, only to learn its chief aim is not enhancement, but replacement. Author John Pugliano, from his 2017 book, “The Robots Are Coming,” put it this way: “Bottom line, any routine job that can easily be defined by a mathematical or logical equation will be at risk.”
My chief aim here is to provoke a healthy skepticism regarding the advent of AI and to remind readers how quickly and dramatically change can occur. Frankly, our jobs may be at stake. Or worse still, we may be flirting with the edge of the abyss.
Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager in the Phoenix area.