03 April 2020

Industry

Read Time 6 mins

AI offers the potential that a new era may dawn

Robert Brown, Group Chief Executive Officer of COINS, explores how AI can identify trends, patterns, and correlations using construction data previously thought worthless.

In 1968, the English international chess master David Levy made a bet with artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer John McCarthy that a computer would not be able to beat him within 10 years.

10 years later on the eve of the expiry period, in 1978, Levy sat down to a six-game match against “Chess 4.7”, a leading program developed by Northwestern University in the US. He won the match, and so won the bet, but the computer did defeat him in game four, marking the first computer victory against a human master in a tournament.

Fast forward to 1997, world Chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov lost an entire match to IBM’s Deep Blue, which heralded a new era in computing. Today computers regularly beat humans, not only at Chess but other games such as Go and even recently Poker, highlighting the growing advancement in their human cognition capability.

Data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (an application of AI), which is the ability of a computer to learn from data and make decisions, offer the potential of a new era in construction thinking and optimisation.

GIGO no longer applies

You may have heard the adage, ‘garbage in, garbage out’, or GIGO, meaning the output of a computer system is only as good as the quality of data fed into it.

When considering ‘garbage data’ people were not referring to the fact that it was irrelevant, just data that had been captured in an unstructured way making it useless for the purposes of retrieval, reporting and analysis. But GIGO no longer applies in all instances, thanks to database technology and AI.

Robert Brown, Group CEO, COINS

Now, data once classed as ‘garbage’, which today, even includes texts, emails and PDF’s to name but a few, can be captured in data lakes, vast repositories of unstructured data, and combined with structured data sources to become powerful information ecosystems. Machine learning based AI tools can be used to interrogate the data, looking not only for connections and patterns but also the meaning and sentiment, which was once classed as a purely human function. Add to this the reality that the data can be analysed in significantly greater quantities, faster and more powerfully than humans could ever dream of and we have a new game changing capability.

For construction, that will mean the ability to look at all data and consider millions of permutations and combinations of ways of designing, planning, scheduling or managing a project.

Contractors have always run scenarios to find more productive ways of undertaking projects. But the number of scenarios you can accurately consider are limited, by time, the capacity of the human mind and historically by the limitations of GIGO-era computing.

People will always tend to believe they can arrive at a better solution than a computer and they probably can, if they have all the information and an unlimited amount of time, and that’s the rub, we don’t really have all the information and we certainly do not have unlimited amounts of time.

Just looking at the time aspect, you might reasonably have the time to consider 10, 20 or even 30 scenarios but, unless you want to spend thousands of person-hours, at some point you have to get on with it, relying on assumptions based on the information that you have and what you believe has worked the best before. What if, however, what you consider having worked best before is based on imperfect data and therefore incorrect assumptions? What you know is probably only the tip of an iceberg in comparison to what there is to know.

With AI you can examine significantly larger datasets and look at hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of permutations, considering the impact of factors and events, which are not possible to process with the human brain.

All data and the best people in one place

Contractors sit on treasure troves of data, but they are marooned in inaccessible islands: spreadsheets, historical project databases, project management software, financial software, emails, texts, PDF’s to name a few.

There are other datasets that may have impacted on a project but not necessarily available for analysis in the GIGO era. Imagine being able to look back at all data from all road-building projects and see what impact and influence did factors such as labour availability, sickness, holidays, weather, financial results, economic conditions, planning regulations, exchange rates, interest rates, tax schemes and performance of clients material providers and supply-chain partners have on a project.

By combining all those data points, using AI to spot trends, patterns, correlations, and based on those results run almost unlimited, what if, scenarios.

You could build up a treasure trove of information regarding the best way to deliver a construction project based on the conditions and circumstances that actually exist. These patterns and trends have now become predictive tools, allowing us to move beyond assumption and gutfeel to better discover in what circumstances did projects thrive and conversely under-perform to enable us to optimise plans and mitigate risks.

Robert Brown, Group Chief Executive Officer, COINS

If this feels a little frightening, another way to look upon it is that it would be like having all the knowledge and experience of all of the best people that you have ever worked with at your fingertips when making the next decision.

It’s a heart attack waiting to happen, we can’t afford not to do this

Contractors in particular work on unbelievably fine margins and incur huge amounts of risk. We should treat the fall of Carillion and repeated profit warnings from our biggest firms like mild heart attacks, warning us that we need to change.

Much of the current pain is down to the way the industry is structured, organised and commercially managed. This is something we can’t escape and which AI on its own won’t necessarily change but it can inform so that we are able to challenge our pre-conceived view of the world and possibly see it differently.

The volume of data and the new techniques provided by AI and machine learning for analysing data will lead to the discovery of approaches none of us thought possible before, leading to new and innovative ways of doing things that will reduce, cost, risk and increase margins.

In construction even if you can make a small margin gain by managing a project a little bit differently, in a way you wouldn’t normally have thought of, it’s going to be worth it. We are living in an era of marginal gains as proven by countless studies and collectively these increments ultimately add up to a winning difference.

Construction is now in a 1978 chess game but with the capability of 2020 and beyond

The technologies and techniques are starting to appear, and now is the time for contractors to get curious, challenge the status quo and begin to open their minds to new possibilities.

Construction industry productivity is amongst the lowest of any industry sector, and it’s also at the bottom of the league when it comes to investing in construction technology. I don’t believe it can be a complete coincidence that the most productive global sectors habitually embrace new technology.

Disruption is coming and there will be winners and losers! The question I would have for larger companies, is not can you afford to do it, but can you afford not to do it?

By all means, start small, try it internally, on a part of the business that you know needs to improve, and test the results. By doing this you will start developing a kernel of expertise in the organisation, so that you’re ready to move when the wave rolls in. This is no longer bleeding edge but leading edge and the winners of the future are already embracing these new technologies.

David Levy got it. After losing the game to Chess 4.7, he wrote: “I had proved that my 1968 assessment had been correct, but on the other hand my opponent in this match was very, very much stronger than I had thought possible when I started the bet.”

Levy went on to offer $1,000 to the developers of a chess program that could beat him in a match. He lost that money in 1989.

COINS construction software offers powerful and scalable solutions designed specifically for the construction industry. 

With thanks to:
Rod Sweet, Editor, Global Construction Review

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