Artificial intelligence is advancing fast and this is our ‘Blockbuster video’ moment. Our industry has the resources to create a brighter future for our clients, our businesses and the world at large, says James Garner.
The futurist Ray Kurzweil made an important prediction in his ground-breaking book The Singularity is Near. According to his forecasts, artificial intelligence (AI) would overtake human intelligence by 2045 and create rapid technological advancement.
Although this bold prediction was met with disbelief by many, recent advances in AI and technology have made reaching the singularity even sooner a very real possibility.
Reflecting on my career journey at Gleeds, where I started as a quantity surveyor and am now the head of data and intelligence, I have witnessed the accelerated pace of change in recent years first-hand. This transformation has not been a mere tweak; it has been an eye-opening experience that has fundamentally shifted the way I perceive our profession.
It is akin to seeing the world through a different lens, a new reality like the one depicted in the Matrix trilogy.
With the rapid advancements in AI and data technology, the importance of modernising the industry has increased tenfold
In 2016, Mark Farmer’s ground-breaking report Modernise or Die warned the construction industry of the urgent need for change. Although this was published before the widespread adoption of AI, its message remains more relevant than ever. In fact, with the rapid advancements in AI and data technology, the importance of modernising the industry has increased tenfold.
As construction industry stakeholders face the rapid development of technology and AI, we should prioritise its responsible and ethical use, ensuring the needs of the industry and our clients come first. The inclusion of GPT technology into Microsoft’s Office suite signifies the rapid progression of the industry and the tools we use. It is likely that large language models will soon become a standard feature in most industry software.
The construction industry is facing a significant challenge from tech giants. Construction often prioritises short-term project delivery while IT vendors tend to see things through for the long haul.
We are handing our data and expertise over to tech giants who will train models using this data and sell it back to us as part of their services
Short-term focus can lead to vendor lock-in that appears enticing on paper, yet a read of the small print will show that this is a trap: we are handing our data and expertise over to tech giants who will train models using this data and sell it back to us as part of their services.
To mitigate this risk, we should prioritise collaboration to avoid being held captive by proprietary software and maintain the integrity of the construction processes we have nurtured for so many years. A quick read of most licence agreements for construction software will reveal that we are willingly providing them with the data to train their models, in a similar way to how Amazon collected and analysed vast amounts of customer data, resulting in high streets that have changed forever.
While undoubtedly in need of modernisation, many of these processes have been built for good reason over many years to protect the industry, and we could find ourselves giving up control, without even realising it. Many of the current models within our industry are broken.
We hoard our data and seek competitive advantages through training proprietary algorithms, rather than embracing open-source alternatives, (such as the open-source community which shares code and promotes collaboration, enabling developers to enhance software, create new apps, and drive innovation). This approach is misguided, as it is based on exploiting data for short-term gain rather than fostering long-term, mutually beneficial relationships from which the whole industry can benefit.
Working together lets us tap into our collective intelligence to drive real change for good
Instead, we should compete based on our strengths and capabilities, pool our resources and share data. Climate change and resource scarcity both demand a level of collaboration never seen before – working together lets us tap into our collective intelligence to drive real change for good!
The construction industry cannot simply go back in time or pretend that AI does not exist. Now that the genie is out of its bottle, we need to work together in a concerted effort to protect the industry from being handed over to the big tech companies.
This is our “Blockbuster video” moment. Institutions such as the RICS, APM, ICE and MPA play an essential part in this process. They can help to form an effective defensive barrier for the industry by joining forces with government entities and developing clear protocols around ethical AI development and by championing the need for data skills to be a core competency of all construction professionals entering the industry.
This is particularly essential given how fast-paced technological change currently is. At Gleeds, we have taken proactive steps to prepare for this future by launching our own Data Academy called Upskill™, providing our staff with the opportunity to acquire and develop the vital skills necessary to navigate the rapidly changing technological landscape.
Initiatives such as the Project Data Analytic Taskforce and Construction Data Trust represent fantastic efforts within our industry that can help us to maintain control over our data. By participating in such efforts, we can avoid unwittingly signing over our information to tech giants when entering into user agreements.
These initiatives also serve as valuable mechanisms for collaboration and knowledge-sharing – something that will be vitally important in adapting to new technologies while maintaining control over our information.
As the recently elected chair of the Project Data Analytics Task Force, I am delighted and proud to have the opportunity to help shape the global conversation around data and collaboration in the industry.
My team and the stakeholders with whom I work have been staunch supporters of the community and related Hackathons events, which bring like-minded people together from across the construction and data industries. This movement is growing and shows that we should not rush to hand the initiative to the tech companies – we have the talent ourselves.
This new era of data-driven innovation and collaboration will redefine our profession and ensure its continued success
No longer does “modernise or die” suffice; rather it must focus on reimagining our collective future, welcoming in new technologies and breaking out of old moulds. Technological advancement is outpacing our ability to adapt, so now more than ever it is important that industry bodies, government entities, large clients, major consultants and construction professionals come together and collaborate on shaping the future of their industry ethically and responsibly.
This new era of data-driven innovation and collaboration will redefine our profession and ensure its continued success. Now is the time for all parties involved to embrace AI and other emerging technologies responsibly, to create a brighter future for our clients, our businesses and the world at large.
Take action today, to enhance your own and your workforce’s understanding of AI and data analytics. Sign up to be part of the growing project data analytics community.
First published on Building Magazine on 19/05/2023