Enabling a different (and better) future with AI

26 Mar 2024

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The latest webinar in FIDIC’s 2024 series of online events on 26 March 2024 took a closer look at the very topical and current issue of artificial intelligence (AI) and its growing potential to transform the construction and infrastructure sector.

The event, AI - powering a new era for construction? The potential of artificial intelligence to transform the industry, was organised by FIDIC’s Digital Transformation Committee, the group which plays a key role in advocating and guiding FIDIC and the consulting engineering community on the use of new and existing technologies.

An expert line-up of speakers came together for the webinar including global engineering consultants working with AI, strategic advisers in the digital field and experts in digital innovation and implementation. The knowledgeable panel of international speakers discussing the key issues was led by webinar chair, Stacy Sinclair, partner and head of technology and innovation at Fenwick Elliott and chair of the FIDIC Digital Transformation Committee (UK), Steve Lewis, partner at Ernst & Young Transactions (Hong Kong), Tony Scott, CEO of NeuralRays AI (UK), Kunihiro Uzawa, general manager, Singapore at Nippon Koei (Singapore), Simon Oster, global data scientist manager at Arcadis (Netherlands) and Dave Mackenzie, managing principal, digital at Aurecon (Australia).

Welcoming delegates to the webinar, FIDIC board member and director of CES Consulting Engineers Martina Hess (Zambia) said that FIDIC’s Digital Transformation Committee was helping to guide FIDIC and the consulting engineering community on the use of new and existing technologies. Given that AI is certainly one of those technologies, Hess said she was delighted that the webinar was dealing with this important issue.

“We know that AI in construction has the potential to help all players realise value throughout project lifecycles, including design, bidding, and financing, procurement and construction, operations and asset management and business model transformation,” she said. “AI in construction has the potential to help the industry as a whole overcome some of our toughest challenges, including safety concerns, labour shortages and cost and schedule overruns,” said Hess.

Stacy Sinclair, partner and head of technology and innovation at Fenwick Elliott and chair of the FIDIC Digital Transformation Committee (UK), said that it was a topical time to be discussing the subject of AI. She highlighted the fast-moving pace of the adoption of AI in various sectors and the setting up of legal and advisory frameworks to underpin its use. “More and more organisations, including government, are endorsing the use of AI. If 2023 was about the possibilities of AI, 2024 will be about progress,” said Sinclair.

Are we going fast enough on AI and do we understand it?

Steve Lewis, partner at Ernst & Young Transactions (Hong Kong), said that EY was currently drafting a major report for FIDIC into AI and its use in the sector. “There are two key questions that we need to ask. Are we progressing fast enough and do we truly understand what AI is and how it can help us deal with the challenges we face as an industry?” He said that the honest answer to both questions currently was no, but that was fine as long as that is understood and that the industry is on a journey to gaining clarity around AI and how it can be used.

Lewis said that the forthcoming EY/FIDIC report would look more closely at how AI is being currently used and attempt to understand the challenges, ambitions and “handshakes” that would really shape how AI can benefit the industry. The report would also outline a series of recommendations on how AI could be used as an enabler to help deliver infrastructure projects and overall to enable a different (and better) future with AI, he said.

Tony Scott, CEO of NeuralRays AI (UK), highlighted some of his company’s work in the AI field and in particular the use and development of generative AI. “Knowledge may come from AI, but wisdom is a human characteristic,” said Scott, making the point that users needed to take responsibility for its use. Generative AI’s outputs were only as valuable as the data it uses and the concept of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ has never been more valid, he said. The industry should be ready for a massive cultural shift and change when adopting AI as “we are asking people to do something new,” said Scott. He concluded by encouraging the industry to use AI “to improve efficiency and outputs rather than reduce headcounts,” an important message for the engineering and construction industry.

A co-pilot for engineers on projects

Kunihiro Uzawa, general manager, Singapore at Nippon Koei (Singapore), highlighted some examples of his organisation’s use of AI, including on road inspection work in Singapore, where the technology was used to identify ten key areas for inspection on a project. Uzawa said that Nippon Koei was keen to work with innovators and “disrupters” to improve their services and were doing so in a number of territories. He also made the point that it was important to “train AI for localisation” in order to get the right answers in specific geographical areas. Getting the correct data into systems was crucial when using AI, he said, backing up the points made earlier in the webinar by Tony Scott. He said that AI could be a “co-pilot” for engineers on projects, enabling their work and not taking over.

Simon Oster, global data scientist manager at Arcadis (Netherlands), said that it was important to understand and recognise that AI was being implemented in what was already a very fragmented industry. That was a challenge that needed to be taken on board. AI tools typically took a short amount of time to develop, he said, but this highlighted the need for training in their use. “You can scale AI very fast but that cost and value need to be weighed very carefully with a clear assessment of the risks within organisations,” said Oster. He said that staff needed to be trained in the use of AI but also its limitations. “There are huge opportunities with AI but we need professionals who can build it to help transform our organisations,” he said.

Less is more on data

Dave Mackenzie, managing principal, digital at Aurecon (Australia), said that Aurecon had been an early adopter of AI and that this use has been quickened by the arrival of Chat GBT into the market. He looked at the impact of the use of AI tools and said that there were 1,500 users of Aurecon’s Recall AI tool. There was great interest in the tool with many questions from staff on how best to use it, he said. He said that it was important to move beyond the traditional chat interface of AI and into problem-solving as the technology was much more powerful than that. “Increasingly we are looking at how we take things further and moving beyond a retrieval-based approach,” said Mackenzie. For those considering using the technology for the first time, he encouraged people to experiment with AI and not get bogged down with legal and regulatory issues. On data, he said that “less is more” and the right data was more important than having lots of it.

The speakers’ excellent contributions sparked many questions from attendees covering a wide range of issues where AI could be used in the construction sector including its use in digital contracts, how to deploy it at scale improve delivery of professional engineering services and lower costs, how to use AI to improve decision-making, bid evaluation possibilities, how to use the technology in the industry to alleviate fatigue among younger workers and the insurance implications of using AI.

The next webinar in FIDIC’s 2024 series of events takes place on Tuesday 9 April 2024 and will review the use of the FIDIC White Book Client/Consultant Model Services Agreement, the fifth edition of which was published in 2017. The White Book is a key part of the FIDIC contracts suite and is one of the most widely used forms of professional services contract internationally.

Click here to book your place at the webinar, The classic contract for clients and consultants - Seven years of the FIDIC 2017 White Book.

Click below to watch a recording of the webinar.

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