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Robots help us do more, better

Mark Hansford

So are the robots taking over? Are they coming to take your job?

Well, they are certainly coming to do 40% of what your job currently involves today, at least according to the futurologists and tech experts who have spoken to New Civil Engineer this month.

And make no mistake – while that is robots out on site or in the factory doing the manual, repetitive tasks such as concrete pouring or steel reinforcement fixing – it is also robots back in the office using artificial intelligence to do the front end design.

Istock 185323250 1 cropped

Istock 185323250 1 cropped

Whether that is scary or not probably depends on your point of view. Having a robot that dramatically cuts down the number of times operatives have to get out in front of a tunnel boring machine cutter head to replace worn cutters has to be a good thing, saving time and money and boosting safety – unless, perhaps, you currently make a good living as a hyperbaric diver who specialises in replacing worn cutter heads in high pressure environments. Similarly, having a robot that can run countless iterations of a complex structural conundrum and gradually hone in on an optimal design has to be another good thing, saving more time and money – unless, perhaps, you currently make a good living driving the software yourself.

Don’t be scared

The correct response is not to be scared; to see these robots as brilliant labour-saving aids, coming to free us of the mundane and allow us to think deeper and do ever greater things – whatever they may be.

But if that concept seems hard to grasp, maybe for now it is simpler. Maybe we should see robots as coming to dramatically boost our productivity; to deliver our projects quicker and more efficiently, and to allow us to move ever more swiftly on to the next one.

Because, notwithstanding the looming General Election in the UK, there is no shortage of projects in the pipeline. In the UK,  the government has set out its infrastructure spending plans in its National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline. This now stands at more than £500bn of total planned investment in the UK’s economic and social infrastructure, of which more than £300bn will be invested by 2020/21.

Rising infrastructure spend

And encouragingly, the government has also instructed the National Infrastructure Commission to “assume”, for the purposes of planning and prioritisation, that government investment in infrastructure overall will rise from 0.8% of GDP to between 1% and 1.2% by 2020.

That is a welcome commitment. It suggests that if projects were delivered quicker and more efficiently the money saved would move swiftly on to the next projects – and not disappear back into the Treasury to fund something else (like health, or education).

And it is a similar picture worldwide, where infrastructure spending also shows no sign of abating. Oxford Economics/PWC Global charts global spending on infrastructure overall as having grown from $2.5trillion (£1.9 trillion) in 2006 to £3.3trillion in 2016 and forecasts continued growth to between £3.9trillion and £4.2trillion by 2020.

Twin threats

That is, of course, driven by the twin threats of population growth and urbanisation and climate change.

So there is no way the work is going to run out, or civil engineers are going to run out of things to do. The world has too many problems for that.

 Meanwhile, eagle-eyed readers may have spotted something different about last month’s New Civil Engineer. If you did not, that is unquestionably a very good thing – because in terms of the actual outputs there was absolutely nothing different about it at all. If you didn’t spot what was different, then look again. And then read our feature on p74 where we discuss our key learning. It is illuminating.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • It is missing the point of history to think that robots and AI will make things better for us. It will make things better for the corporations that employ us perhaps, but instead of gaining the time saved for creative thinking us designers will be pressurised to run more projects and run them faster. We will lose the ability to be involved and creative and become functionaries to the machine. After all the headline story will be "it's all done by robots" and the shareholders will demand the maximisation of short term profits. Look at the introduction of CAD, email, word processing and the like. All it means is that we spend less time doing engineering and more time typing, and all the admin and typing staff have gone. So the time gained is not available for thinking but helping increase profit. It's inevitable. I am not, of course, saying ignore AI, but we at ICE should be demanding it is used to inform not replace engineering and that an engineer who is given time to engineer is at the heart of the process. This I think the thrust of your article is wrong. We shouldn't embrace AI but demand it is used wisely instead of just to boost profits by reducing intuative human thinking.

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