Robots & AI panel, left to right: Andy E. Kaiyala, vice president of engineering at The Lane Construction Corp.; Mitch Tobias, worldwide market manager, construction digital & technology at Caterpillar Inc.; Jim Peterson, design build director & senior vice president at HNTB Corporation; and Carson T. Carney, vice president of sales & technology integration at TyBot, LLC. Standing at right is moderator Tom Webb, vice president of strategic initiatives and customer relations at HCSS.

By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA

ARTBA’s 2019 National Convention emphasized how artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and other smart machines and technological innovations are changing the transportation design and construction industry–and nearly every other aspect of our lives.

“The next five to 10 years are going to be more disruptive than people realize,” said Ross Smith, director of Skype for Good at Microsoft.

Machine learning and output is doubling every 18 months, but humans are not keeping pace, Smith said. Up to 800 million workers globally could become displaced by AI and machines by 2030.

“Machines have always changed the way people work,” he said. “Will this time be any different, or is this the existential threat that many people fear?”

Bryan Nicol, managing director of infrastructure and capital projects at Deloitte, said we are living through a revolution.

“The scale, complexity, and speed are enormous,” he said. “It is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

He pointed to three numbers from a recent Deloitte survey of C-suite leaders:

  • 81 percent expect to increase artificial intelligence in their organizations over the next three years;

  • 66 percent said they will need to re-skill their workforce due to automation; and

  • 90 percent are using alternative talent (gig workers, independent contractors) within their organization today.

Amber MacArthur, president of Ambermac Media and host of the award-winning “The AI Effect” Podcast, said “a tipping point” for technology is arriving as soon as next year, with the number of devices connected to the internet reaching 26 billion.

“Change never happened so fast in the past, and it will never happen so slow in the future,” she said, quoting Canadian journalist Graeme Wood.

MacArthur outlined several emerging trends: voice technology; vehicle mobility; chatbot technology; computer vision & robots; synthetic content, such as “deep fake videos” ; and AI’s impact on the future of work.

Industry Panel

In transportation construction, new technology can reduce or replace jobs that are dirty, dull, or dangerous, said Carson T. Carney, vice president of sales & technology integration at TyBot, LLC., which has pioneered a rebar-tying robot. He was one of four construction industry experts on a robotics and AI panel.

Jim Peterson, design build director & senior vice president at HNTB Corporation, said the use of drones and 3D modeling is increasing at earlier stages of engineering and designing projects.

Andy E. Kaiyala, vice president of engineering at The Lane Construction Corp., said sophisticated models, or “digital twins” of actual projects, are becoming collection points for data and information, “a single source of truth,” that drives forward-looking decisions to reduce complexity and yield more efficient and profitable work.

Caterpillar Inc. has more than 200 autonomous trucks in operation at its customers’ mine sites, which are typically located far from population centers, unlike most transportation construction work zones. It will take time for the public to adjust to seeing unmanned vehicles at highway construction sites, and years for contractors to upgrade their equipment to autonomous vehicles, said Mitch Tobias, Caterpillar’s worldwide market manager for Construction Digital & Technology.

“Technology is the easy part. It’s the interface with people and process flow that is more difficult,” he said.

Relentless Adaption

Coping with all these changes requires “relentless adaption,” MacArthur said. She urged industry leaders to experiment and lead. “Stay open to ‘crazy ideas,’ ” she said.

“Be cautious, not fearful,” Nicols said. “Fearful means you freeze. Or you can move forward, address where you want to be in the future to be a better organization. Successful organizations will say: ‘We are changing our future before it changes us.’ “