Be ready to face AI induced disruption, Harish Rao

Be ready to face AI induced disruption, Harish Rao

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All over the world, engineering and construction is behind the curve in implementing artificial intelligence solutions. Though adjacent industries like transportation and manufacturing are extensively using AI, its use in engineering and construction is at a nascent stage, only some start-ups deploying the AI. At present, its use is restricted to project schedule optimization where one can consider millions of alternatives for project delivery and continuously enhance overall project planning. Assessment of video data collected on work sites to identify unsafe work behaviour is another area where AI is employed profitably

In India AI still stands for Air India, the beleaguered government owned national carrier which is bleeding red for last many years and has stuck like a fish bone in government’s throat. But elsewhere in the world AI stands for a new phenomenon which is being termed as industrial revolution 4.0. Yes, AI or artificial intelligence is invading the industries and the life slowly but steadily and it is making its presence felt in more ways than it used to a few years ago. And experts believe that AI is poised to disrupt our world – the way we live and the way we do our business.

In simple words, AI refers to the ability of machines to perform cognitive tasks like thinking, perceiving, learning, problem solving and decision making. It is called artificial intelligence because it was initially conceived as a technology that could mimic human intelligence. However, over the years, AI has evolved in ways that far exceed its original concept and its capabilities have dramatically expanded. In fact, the concept can be applied in all fields where human actions are involved. Machine learning algorithms detect patterns and learn how to make predictions and recommendations by processing data and experiences, rather than by receiving explicit programming instruction. The algorithms also adapt in response to new data and experiences to improve efficacy over time. Unlimited access to computing power, huge fall in cost of storing data in recent years, again thanks to technological advancement and explosion in the generation of digitised data are some of the factors that have contributed to the evolution of the concept of AI in the recent years.

AI, once-in-a-generation phenomenon, has already invaded several sectors – transportation, healthcare, manufacturing and many more. Though not found in India, elsewhere in the world transportation companies use AI to optimize routes and improve traffic navigation. The pharmaceutical industry has been investing heavily into predictive AI solutions, which lower R&D costs in the long run, mainly by forecasting medical trial outcomes. Retail sector is another segment which has made most of the technological advancement in the field of AI. AI has helped to reduce manufacturing downtime which in turn has contributed to reducing oversupply, and increasing predictability of shipments. This has resulted in enhanced efficiency of the retail sector through impressive reductions in costs, logistical burdens, and variability.

However, there is one sector which is still a laggard in using AI in its operations and functions, that is, engineering and construction. All over the world, engineering and construction is behind the curve in implementing artificial intelligence solutions. Though adjacent industries like transportation and manufacturing are extensively using AI, its use in engineering and construction is at a nascent stage, only some start-ups deploying the AI. At present, its use is restricted to project schedule optimization where one can consider millions of alternatives for project delivery and continuously enhance overall project planning. Assessment of video data collected on work sites to identify unsafe work behaviour is another area where AI is employed profitably.

However, there are several areas where AI can be used in engineering and construction. Just as in case of transportation, where AI is used to optimize routes and improve traffic navigation such technology could be directly applied to E&C project planning and scheduling, as it has the potential to assess endless combinations and alternatives based on similar projects, optimizing the best path and correcting themselves over time. E&C can learn lessons from the experience of the pharmaceutical industry too and use predictive applications to forecast project risks, constructability, and the structural stability of various technical solutions, providing insight during the decision-making phase and potentially saving millions of dollars down the road. Also some of the applications can enable testing of various materials, limiting the downtime of certain structures during inspection.  Also modularization and 3-D printing is making slow inroads into construction and AI can be used to benefits of these approaches. Thus, the number of AI solutions applicable to E&C are potentially endless.

In India, AI can make its presence felt much faster and earlier than one expected thanks to the growth of smart cities which in-turn is necessitated by fast paced urbanisation. Smart Cities are  aimed at driving economic growth and improving the quality of life, by harnessing IT solutions. Since smart cities can generate large amount of data they are amenable to application of AI,  which can make sense of the data being generated, and transform it into predictive intelligence – thus transitioning from a smart city to an ‘intelligent city’. However, the more you generate data the more will be the risk of its misuse by hacking. Also there will be activist groups raising objections of intruding into private life of citizens while collecting data. This is a sensitive issue and need to be tackled carefully. 

Despite the possible misuse of the data, there are several areas where AI can be profitably used in smart cities. AI can be used for monitoring pavement lighting, park maintenance and other operational conditions which could lead to cost savings while also improving safety and accessibility. On the domestic front, AI can be used for such applications as smart rooftops, water saving applications optimising domestic water utilisation for different human activities etc. AI can also be used to enhance the efficiency of service delivery on the basis of citizen data, rationalisation of administrative personnel on the basis of predicted service demand and migration trend analysis. Sophisticated surveillance systems supported by AI could keep checks on people’s movement, potential crime incidents, and general security of the residents. For example, in the city of Surat, the crime rate has declined by 27% after the implementation of AI powered safety systems.

While it is true that India is some distance away from delivering home grown pioneering technology solutions in AI, adapting and innovating the technology for country’s unique needs and opportunities, we also have the late-movers’ advantage which need to be exploited and maximised. Unlike in case of IT revolution where the government played lesser role and allowed the private sector to bloom, in case of AI the government need to take leadership role in crafting a national strategy for building a vibrant AI ecosystem in India and collaborating with various experts and stakeholders. Government’s involvement will also ensure that the benefits of new innovation and technology percolates down to the lowest level in the society. If that happens, then it will be a true example of inclusive growth.