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Will automation replace engineers?

arup robot chat 2

Robots currently do a lot of jobs – vacuuming your floor, manufacturing your car, counting your change at the supermarket – but could they do your job?

A 2014 study from Deloitte and Oxford University found 35% of today’s jobs have a high chance of being automated.

“The pattern of job automation by UK industry is quite diverse,” says Deloitte vice chairman Angus Knowles-Cutler.

The study found retail, manufacturing and transport sectors are all at higher risk of automation because tasks are more manual, administrative and repetitive. Jobs requiring more creative, technical and interpersonal skills are seen as the safest roles, with the majority in the professional, health and education fields.

arup robot chat 2

Arup robot chat

Arup director and ICE fellow Tim Chapman is interviewed by robot ‘Nao’ on artificial intelligence at a conference in March.

One thing the experts agree on is that while professionals in civil engineering might have more breathing room, they are far from immune.

“I think we can work from the assumption that anything that can be automated, will be automated,” says Mott MacDonald director Mark Enzer. “So we have a choice, whether we do that ourselves, or wait until somebody does it to us.”

So what can be done to prepare?

Humans are definitely not as good [as robots] at plugging numbers into spreadsheets… But humans are good at interacting, stakeholder management, talking with other humans

With machines left to more menial tasks, it leaves humans to play to their strengths, which increasingly appear to be human-to-human skills.

“Humans are definitely not as good [as robots] at plugging numbers into spreadsheets… But humans are good at interacting, stakeholder management, talking with other humans,” Enzer says.

But as artificial intelligence improves, higher order skills such as design could be under threat.

“Ultimately, decision-making will also be done by machines. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a role for humans anymore, it just means the nature of the task changes.”

The idea of ‘labour’ must change

As robots take more of the basic and mundane tasks away from humans, reducing the necessary hours and work required, the idea of “labour”  will also change.

This new digital world could mean a revolution in remuneration.

“In the past, ‘hours spent’ was a good proxy for value… but in the digital world, the divergence between ‘value added’, and ‘hours spent’ is becoming too unsustainable,” says Enzer.

Network Rail digital transformation director Mark Bossert says quantifying the amount of “concrete poured” has also not been a good proxy for value.

Outcome based solutions required

“We say we are going to build something. Then you are measured by the regulator on how many cubic metres of concrete you use. Instead, we really need outcome-based regulation, not activity-based regulation,” says Bossert.

“This then frees us up with our suppliers, who might deliver something better at lower cost.”

Enzer believes in that future we will need to maintain and interconnect infrastructure assets, rather than grow them.

“There is an increased focus on whole asset life management, customers, and outcomes. This leads to a very different notion of value,” he says.

Structure and environment of the industry itself needs to change for smart infrastructure to work

Mark Bossert, Network Rail

Enzer believes this new perception of value will create a closer link between money spent and customer outcomes.

“Structure and environment of the industry itself needs to change for smart infrastructure to work; essentially we need to have a better alignment between what is really wanted, and what the supply chain gets incentivised to do.”

“There are lots of ways to do this: reward the supply chain on a percentage of savings made – that’s easy where there are energy savings. Or it could be based on an allocation of value, so for example, a reduced time of travel, or increase in certainty of time for travel.”

“If you reward the supply chain on those measures, they are aligned with what you really want.”

Customer focus requires data

And creating this new customer-focused model will require data. Lots of it. If there’s one piece of advice Enzer wishes to pass on, it is: grab all of the data you can, and hold on to it.

“It’s good to go and search for the data you need, in order to solve your problems. But it’s also handy to just collect all the data anyway, there’s no need to throw it away, because it’s so cheap, and one day it will be useful.

“The cost of storing data has gone from $700,000 per gigabyte in 1981 to 4c per gigabyte today.”

Wikihouse founder Alastair Parvin says that for smart cities to deliver on their lofty promises, a total system change is needed.

“We’ve wedded ourselves to the proxy, rather than serving the end value: making a whole industry whose job it was to make schools, rather than provide education; or whose job it was to make hospitals, rather than providing health,” says Parvin.

Wikihouse

Wikihouse

A Wikihouse designed using open source software

Parvin’s project Wikihouse starts with an open-source, user-friendly version of CAD. It updates users in real time on building cost, dimensions. Then “pieces” of the house are sent off to be manufactured, and later arranged, jigsaw-like on site – the entire process requires no professional expertise.

While this project might put fear into the hearts of architects, builders and engineers, Parvin believes the digital future will require plenty of professionals.

“When you think about it, soon we’re going to be on a planet with 9bn people, and we’ve got to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in the same period. The odds of us running out of design problems is pretty slim.”

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