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Written by
on 25 July 2018


Technology is playing an increasingly important role in society, helping to automate common tasks, increase efficiency and productivity, and to drive down operating costs. As the name implies, artificial Intelligence promises to make these technologies more “intelligent”.

What does that mean? Advanced technology is now able to analyse data and then take action based on its certain observations. Artificial intelligence is intended to be quicker than humans when it comes to analysing lots of data and making decisions.

How is Artificial Intelligence being used in construction?

The truth is that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not really being used in the construction industry right now. But that will change.

There are however trials and experiments underway, looking at how technology can help to raise health and safety standards on construction sites. IT giant Cisco has partnered with Cortexica to develop a new suite of tools that they expect to deliver serious improvements.

This new system monitors onsite CCTV camera feeds to analyse activities. As employees pass in front of cameras, the AI can recognise the person and whether they are wearing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE). If the AI detects an employee is not properly kitted out, an immediate alert is sent to that employee’s mobile phone, advising them to take corrective steps.

The site supervisor is also alerted to breaches of the protocol so they can assess whether this is a site-wide trend and whether further education is required to prevent similar failings in future.

The system is supposed to replace traditional spot-checks carried out by the shift foreman. Applying Artificial Intelligence to this seemingly low-level task provides several benefits. First, the AI system is constantly monitoring PPE compliance throughout the day, whereas a spot-check by the foreman takes place once per shift at most.

Second, the AI system cannot be fooled or tricked. Contractors can easily sway their manager to avoid a reprimand, preventing site principle contractors from accurately assessing site safety standards.

Cisco and Cortexica hope to re-engineer these functionalities for use in other departments and industries.

What does the future hold for Artificial Intelligence in construction?

Artificial Intelligence systems tend to work best when being “fed” lots of data. This allowed the computer algorithms to identify hidden trends and patterns that indicate problems that need to be addressed.

Previously the Veritas Consulting blog talked about the potential use of wearable technologies to help keep employees safe. Each of these connected devices also produces valuable information about how people move around a site, near-miss accidents there are with heavy machinery and the like. These data points could be shared with an AI platform to analyse, helping to predict future problems or to identify safer ways of working in the future.

In the distant(?) future, it may be that robots are brought onto sites to carry out the highest risk jobs and to protect the human workforce. Robots are already heavily involved with manufacturing and pre-fabrication, so their use is not unknown in the construction industry – but they have not yet made It onto the physical building site.

Given current trends – such as the high profile self-driving cars being designed by Google, Apple and Uber – it is very likely that we will begin to see cybernetics on construction sites at some point in the future. But what does this mean for human construction workers?

Should you be worried about Artificial Intelligence in construction?

Robotics in the workforce is a hugely contentious topic. Having seen the way that robots decimated jobs in the manufacturing industry, it is perfectly reasonable for construction workers to be concerned.

But as things stand, it will be a long time until jobs come under threat. Here are a few things to consider:

Artificial Intelligence systems do make mistakes

AI is typically quicker at analysing data and making decisions – but it can still make the wrong choice. If there is an error in the algorithms used by the AI, the resulting decision will also be wrong.

People will still play an important role in defining and correcting the algorithms used by AI for instance. They will also need to routinely assess the quality of decisions made to ensure that the artificial Intelligence system is making the right calls and that no new risks are being created as a result.

Robots aren’t good enough for construction. Yet.

It will be quite some time before we see robots working on building sites. Longer still until we see them taking jobs.

As the experiences of self-driving car manufacturers have shown, teaching a robotic system to think for itself is incredibly complex, time-consuming and expensive. And although there are prototype vehicles being tested on public roads in the USA, It will still be some time before we see them being available for sale to the general public.

Construction robots face many similar challenges. In theory, a robot could be taught to lay brick right now – but only under perfect circumstances. In the real world, the robot would need to be programmed to carry out the same decision-making tasks as human brickies, assessing weather, environmental conditions, cement mix, project progress, mid-project design adaptations etc. It takes a construction worker years to develop these skills and experience – and it will take a similar period of time to teach them to an artificial Intelligence-powered robot.

Artificial Intelligence systems will arrive in the construction industry eventually – but it may not be the disaster many unions think.

Indeed, if these systems help to keep workers safe on site, they may be a very good thing indeed.

To learn more about raising health and safety provisions on site (without the use of AI), please get in touch.

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A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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