Artificial intelligence (AI) programs are a growing trend within the construction industry. It’s not yet to the point of human intelligence, but this technology can take over mundane and repetitive tasks, allowing engineers and designers to focus on their creatively and intellectually challenging work.

In the webinar “Getting the ROI Out of AI,” hosted by Engineering News-Record, Thornton Tomasetti chief technology officer Robert Otani described AI as the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially computer programs.

“AI surrounds all of us, from Gmail to LinkedIn and Amazon. Their programs learn to understand our preferences,” says Otani.

This learned data processing and prediction can be capitalized for engineering workflow processes.

“Machine learning is great at doing mundane tasks. It can create and recognize patterns and find outlier patterns. It can process data and find patterns that humans wouldn’t find,” says Otani. “It’s being used to read medical journals to understand certain problems. Humans can’t do that quickly.”

Another use of AI is capturing institutional knowledge from experts in a field so that younger engineers can implement that knowledge into their workflow.

Some programs can run through design options to optimize a building plan in the early design stages. Others can be taught to recognize materials damage through photographs.

“With a combination of drones and photographs we can do inspections faster and more often,” says Otani.

He anticipates that 20 to 30 percent of current engineering workflows can be automated using AI in the next five years.

According to Andy Leek, vice president of technology and innovation at Paric Corporation, AI can be used to proactively solve problems rather than reactively solving them. AI can flag common words in a conversation or images that suggest a safety issue, giving those on the project a heads up early in the process.

“We’re in the early days of AI,” he says. “It’s important to research the tools available and find achievable goals that make sense for your project.”

Iro Armeni, Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, pointed out that the construction industry has not seen major productivity increases in the last 40 years.

“This industry is starting to become increasingly mature and open to technological advancements. The AI trend is not an exception,” she says.

One challenge that affects many companies is that they do not know what to do with AI, and have no specific interests or end goals.

“They have a tendency to hoard data,” says Armeni. “AI can make informed decisions and predictions. Only by having an end goal can you unlock the potential of AI.”

She said that someone doesn’t have to be an AI expert to help bring change.

“Think about what you would like to do that you cannot do well, cannot do at all or need to do a lot more of but it is not feasible due to expertise or budget. Then create an end goal,” she said.

Armeni does not believe that AI will cause a major disruption to the workforce, but expects it to take over mundane tasks, freeing up time for engineers and designers to focus on the more intellectual parts of a project.