Artificial intelligence is already a significant presence in our lives and the transformation of our world is only going to get faster. We therefore need to learn and adapt to stay relevant, says Diego Padilla-Philipps

Diego Padilla-Phillips

Diego Padilla-Philipps is director of decarbonisation and innovation for building structures at WSP

We all have a bit of a Hollywood-inspired understanding of artificial intelligence. Terminator’s Skynet (or Genysis for more recent fans); HAL (Space Odyssey), VIKI (I, Robot). This humanised idea of super-AI shapes how we see the future, its potential and its risks. We then tend to overestimate the short-term impact of technology and underestimate the long run (otherwise known as Amara’s law after the American scientist and futurist Roy Amara).

But AI is already around us, in every screen that we look at. It is present in our daily lives without us realising it.

The first generation of AI, ANI (or narrow AI), is everywhere from your car’s braking system to an aeroplane’s navigation and autopilot. Our phones, emails, music players, image editors, Instagram, TikTok – they all run on AI.

>> Also read: The stakes are high but so are the rewards: AI and the future of construction

They learn, predict, tailor and target consumers: search engines, translating tools, GPT, Siri, Alexa, Netflix, travelling sites, GPS, accessing loans, your credit card fraud detection system. AI is everywhere…

These tools have already transformed how we live our lives, how we interact with the world and with each other. Remember the world 30 years ago? I do. It was a world without internet, no email, social media, ubiquitous photography, Uber or electric scooters.

Now picture this but 30 years into the future, and multiply by three, four or even five? The law of accelerating returns (proposed by Ray Kurzweil) suggests that in the 21st century we will see a thousand times more development than in the 20th. This exponential growth is key to trying to predict what is coming.

The next generation of AI, artificial general intelligence (AGI), will have the ability to understand a wide range of tasks including abstract thinking. It will be able to learn and adapt as a human being.

As the price of technology reduces exponentially, we will reach the point where the current paradigm can no longer stand

This will completely transform our world – again – possibly within the next 20-30 years. OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman predicted that AGI could be developed in the “reasonably close-ish future”. But what does that mean for those of us working in the built environment?

The construction industry is complex. The ways we plan, design, build, procure, finance, insure and use buildings are dependent on each other. This has evolved in a way that one process reinforces the other, making it very challenging for disruptors to break through.

But, as the price of technology also reduces exponentially, we will reach the point where the current paradigm can no longer stand. We are seeing this already happening with the advancement of off-site manufacturing and platform-based approaches to design and manufacture (P-DfMA).

Building design is already being influenced by AI. Generative AI is helping us to use parametric models and evidence-based design to test and iterate, using genetic algorithms, to achieve the most optimal design at an early stage, driving up efficiency and driving down carbon emissions.

Complex simulations and analysis result in better buildings, playing with hundreds of variables simultaneously, and learning from hundreds of thousands of points of data generated from each project; something that humans simply cannot do. 

What the future might bring

Between now and 2030, we will see an explosion of generative AI in architectural and engineering offices. Early-stage, multi-objective optimisation including all the architecture and engineering disciplines will become the norm.

This will inform and de-risk projects from the start, including cost analysis, code and planning compliance and carbon emissions reduction. A paradigm shift is coming.

In the 2030s, as AI’s role extends into materials science, it will help to accelerate the discovery and application of new materials to improve building performance, durability and sustainability. We will also start to see automated construction sites.

By the 2040s, AI will have transformed the engineering and architecture professions in ways that are hard to predict. Most processes will be automated and optimised.

Jobs that we thought could only be done by humans will quickly be replaced by programs

Designers will use AI in every aspect of their jobs; it will be a tool that enhances our perception, intuition and creativity. The boundary between disciplines will almost disappear. Design firms will be holistic and end-to-end. Planning, cost and compliance will be fully automated and possibly autonomous.

Construction sites will also change. Following Mustafa Suleyman’s prediction of robots with human dexterity and programmable in plain English at the price of a microwave, we can expect them to be deployed to many – but particularly high-risk – activities. This will transform our perception of risk and constructability, impacting construction programme and cost.

In the 2050s and beyond, with the arrival of general AI, we will see everything change again. Jobs that we thought could only be done by humans will quickly be replaced by programs.

If we then extrapolate this to bioengineering and robotics, from bio-genetic carbon sequestering materials to micro and nano technology that self-builds, the possibilities escape our imagination.

Is my job at risk?

What is true is that the development of AI and its immersion in every aspect of life and work will initially enhance what we do. This is called augmented intelligence, the combination of human experience and narrow AI. But it is only the beginning.

As our systems and processes become smarter, what we currently see as risks or limitations will start to disappear. This will lead to a transformation in how buildings are designed, built, procured and insured.

This is when the role of the engineer, architect, project manager and others will have to change. And, if we don’t adapt, our jobs will be at risk.

Most of our current jobs will change in the next five to 10 years. Anything we currently do on a screen can – and eventually will – be automated

Most of our current jobs will change in the next five to 10 years. Anything that we currently do on a screen can – and eventually will – be automated.

So, we need to learn, grow and adapt to stay relevant. We need investment in innovation that can anticipate such disruption. They say that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Diego Padilla-Philipps is director of decarbonisation and innovation for building structures at WSP. This is the first of three columns about the growth of AI in the construction sector and what property professionals can expect to see in the future