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Civils firms warned over delaying new technology uptake

Big data

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are already creating drastic changes to industry and now is the time to act, say leading experts on technology.

“We’re at a point in computational capacity, and the democratisation of software capability, that makes right now a significant point in history,” Palmer Group founder Shelly Palmer said. The US-based Palmer Group provides software engineering and strategic advisory to multinationals.

For evidence, Palmer cites recent achievements by computers that were not expected for another decade. These include: a Google-led machine defeating one of the best humans in the world at Go. And “Libratus”, an AI designed by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon, which defeated four of the world’s best Texas Hold’em Poker players – by bluffing.

“If you think of a construction company, most of what that is, is highly advanced and experienced construction managers, project managers, making certain things happen at certain times,” Palmer said. ”Computers are so much better than people at this, no matter what people might think.”

“So there are things that you would think would never be impacted, but that are going to give immense competitive advantage to those who are first.”

Palmer said much of the efficiencies made will come from automation of middle management and white collar work via “data processing on steroids”.

“Looking at spreadsheets and trying to make head or tail of a set of numbers. That work’s going first.

“The computer is looking for suspicious patterns; instead of needing 15 interns to read through 100,000 emails in a lawsuit, the computer does it in four seconds. That’s big savings.”

Machine learning environments from Amazon, Salesforce, IBM and Microsoft among others have been commoditised and cost anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of US dollars. But there are additional costs in “training” – requiring time, capital and (human) personnel – before AI “becomes an employee” of a company.

Palmer said many companies will wait for the technology to become more advanced and cheaper, as time goes on. But, he added, this is not a good strategy, partly because the rate of technological change is accelerating.

“And so if you wait three years to start this, and somebody has an AI system with three years’ more training than your AI system, you’re not going to catch up,” says Palmer.

“The longer you wait the worse off you are. Even getting it wrong is going to be getting it right, because knowing your competitor can’t do it either is a competitive advantage.”

Author of “Rise of the Humans” and Microsoft thought leader David Coplin said the speed at which a certain industry adopts AI and robotics was due to a number of factors.

“It’s about the roles of the individuals, and the amount of investment. And some of it is about some people not paying attention to what’s going on.

”One problem I have – typically we only use technology to replicate the way we’ve always worked. In our organisations most of the processes date back to the 19th century and we all use this amazing technology to make those old practices a bit quicker or a bit cheaper.”

For those looking to upskill, Coplin said engineers will not need to become computer scientists, but rather merely pick up “basic technology skills”.

“Pen and paper out in the field could soon be entirely replaced with augmented reality. You could superimpose schematics over the bridge, identify the flaws, and not only give a better indication out in the field, but that data will be being streamed back to some office somewhere.

“So you think about the skills needed: it’s not going to be good enough that I’m a good engineer, I’m going to need some of those basic technology skills to make sure I’m getting the outcome I’m looking for.”

Palmer said he recently worked with a heavy equipment company on another digital frontier –  blockchain ledgers and smart contracts. While not robotics or AI, it is another digitalisation of traditional methods that is set to revolutionise industry.

“What happens is they regulated the speed of all the trucks and monitored the loading capacity by smart contract across an entire jobsite and were able to save 20% in fuel costs by keeping those trucks not idling. Plus a 15% efficiency saving in payloads.

”Now that doesn’t sound like much but over an 18 month massive excavation project, that changes your entire cost structure.”




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