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Tech Fest | Re-imagine the future

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A futurologist, speaking at this week’s TechFest, gives his thoughts on how the built world might be transformed through technology.

At New Civil Engineer’s Festival of Innovation and Technology on 14 September keynote speaker Dave Coplin, chief executive at The Envisioners, will be giving his take on the impacts and challenges facing industry in adapting to a rapidly changing technology landscape.

For more than 25 years, Coplin has written books and provided strategic advice to companies such as Microsoft around the impact of technology on a modern society.

When Coplin spoke to New Civil Engineer in May for a special edition on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), he started frankly: “one of the worst things we ever did was call it AI.”

“Because what we’re looking at today is neither artificial nor intelligent,” Coplin said. “When we talk about AI we’re really talking about another form of automation, and when you talk about AI in that context the penny starts to drop about what’s going to happen.

“What we can do, in the same way we can mimic human movement in physical robots, and we’ve seen them in our production lines for decades – we can now mimic some of the basic cognitive processes that we humans do.”

While supermarkets, manufacturing and cars are notably seeing leaps in cognitive automation, big leaps are now happening in more technical professions such as accountancy, law and banking. And civil engineers won’t be immune.

“If you think of accountancy, the legal system; given a question, there is a standardised way in which you answer that question, and it draws off historical data, and you connect variables from the question to give you the answer that you’re looking for. These are things that are actually really simple… give the right data in the right way and you can train the algorithms to automate.

“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 at least to make sure I’m getting the outcome I’m looking for.”

Coplin’s book “Rise of the Humans” alludes to the inevitable question that arises from these tech-led scenarios: what will it will mean to be human?

“As a personal example, I’ve got an 11 year old, and my bet is that it’s entirely feasible that he will choose his lifelong partner on the basis of an algorithmic prediction; doctors five years from now might be able to say “There’s a 68% chance you will have prostate cancer.

”What we as a society need to do is prepare for that. I see for a world of AI is not so much on technology, but what we choose to do with the results.

”We’ve got to take a portion of that saving and invest a portion back into the organisation to help those that have been displaced.

“And longer-term, back to my 11 year old son, what he’s learning now will be of no use to him in his world of work. And so he needs to learn a completely different skill set, so we’ve got this long term-short term game to play to help minimise the disruption we’re going to go through.”

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