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Covid-19, artificial intelligence and the future of the civil engineer

08 December 2020

In our latest ICE Strategy Session, Professor Richard Susskind presented a future in which technology could challenge the need for traditional civil engineering skills.

Covid-19, artificial intelligence and the future of the civil engineer

It is not often that a profession is challenged to question whether it will still exist in the future – but that was the premise of the latest ICE Strategy Session: Covid-19, artificial intelligence and the future of the civil engineer.

The challenge was posed by Professor Richard Susskind, co-author of “The future of the professions”, which predicts the decline of today’s professions as a result of developments in technology.

Susskind told the online audience that technology offers two different potential futures for professions, including civil engineering: automation and innovation. In the “automation” scenario, technology is there to support and enhance the traditional ways of doing things. But in the “innovation” future, technology is used not to support and enhance traditional methods, but to displace and replace them, making traditional professions redundant.

He said that we are living at a time when technology is growing exponentially; systems are becoming increasingly capable and increasingly pervasive; and humans are becoming increasingly connected. “There is no finishing line to all this,” he explained. “The world is changing before our very eyes, and no-one in Silicon valley is saying “job done” or “let’s slow down”. Quite the reverse.”

Susskind said that in the 1980s, when digital technology first came into widespread use, we did not anticipate the ways it would develop, including the Web, brute force computing and machine learning. “We are moving from systems that are programmed to systems that learn,” he said. “They take huge amounts of data, process it, identify patterns, correlations and trends, and then predict.

“The common fallacy is that they have to copy the way humans do it. They don’t,” he added, giving the example of AlphaGo, the first computer program to defeat a professional human Go player, which it achieved in part by making a move that no human player would have chosen. “You could call that creative, innovative – even genius,” said Susskind.

Susskind concluded by arguing that “What is future of civil engineers?” is the wrong question. It should be :“How, in future, will you be solving the problems to which civil engineers are currently your best answer?”

In response to Susskind’s address, Build UK chief executive Suzannah Nichol said artificial intelligence (AI) has huge potential to address many of the issues that make construction a challenging environment to work in and a difficult career to sell to young people. “For some jobs it will support and enhance,” she said. “For other roles it will revolutionise them, and it will create and provide other jobs.

“You can either get on a bicycle and try to pedal harder and faster, or get off the bicycle and into the helicopter, and use the time you’ve saved to do different things,” she added.

Balfour Beatty managing director for major projects, Stephen Tarr ,said: “Change is not something to be feared but to be embraced. It is important that we don’t see it as threat, but as way of delivering better outcomes. The challenge is how to harness it.”

ICE president Rachel Skinner added: “What is it we’re all here for as a profession? We are all about improving the quality of life for billions of people. If we are really clever, we will get all these technologies working with us as a way of addressing the really urgent issues of the day.

  • Margo Cole, technical writer and editor at ICE