Taking on AI

As the world grapples with the dizzying pace of technology development, P3 experts are considering how to take advantage

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Technology is sometimes seen as the great panacea: all ills will seemingly be cured at some point in the future by putting faith in developing new technologies that can deal with the problems.

However, with great opportunity comes great danger, and perhaps never more so than with the technology changes of today, as artificial intelligence (AI) offers to reduce workloads to such an extent that it could make huge swathes of the population redundant. Companies cannot afford to ignore the potential that new technologies present, however, and governments will need to work with business to ensure competitive advantages can be developed without unleashing a tsunami of unemployment and a whole host of accompanying economic challenges.

Into this discussion comes the infrastructure market. During the Canadian Council for PPPs (CCPPP) conference in November, a panel of experts came together to consider how new technology, and particularly AI, is being used already - and where it can lead.

One of the key areas in which the panelists felt AI technology has the power to transform the infrastructure community is in handling and presenting the increasingly large amount of data that is involved in the delivery and operation of major infrastructure assets.

“The amount of data in projects is now so much that AI is becoming a necessity,” said Jeff Walter, digital consulting lead at Aecom.

“A lot of mundane, day-to-day tasks can be taken care of by AI technologies such as ChatGPT,” added Bill Syrros, senior partner and Exponential Labs leader at BDO Canada.

This is where some significant benefits can be realised: as more people are freed from day-to-day administrative tasks, this should allow for more creativity and the ability to think more strategically about the future of a business, project or system.

Teena Thampan, vice president of data analytics and automation at Brookfield Asset Management, recognized this. “It means you can focus on value added projects,” she explained.

This move will allow for more transformational work to be carried out - and could also lead to a greater number of projects being delivered, as the labor costs are kept to a minimum because the time taken to handle all the data being created will be significantly reduced.

“Our industry as a whole has a capacity problem,” said Winter. “So this is probably going to solve that capacity issue.”

Syrros took the concept of data capture even further, suggesting that at some point in the future it may be possible to have ‘digital twins’ of workers. “Information  walks out of the door when a person leaves,” he explained. “We have never had the ability to keep that knowledge before, but large language models give us the tools to potentially do that.”

He also put forward the idea of using an AI ‘digital twin’ to help management deal with a lot of the questions and emails that they receive on a daily basis. The hope, again, is that by getting the computer to carry out these tasks, managers will be much freer to carry out major tasks that can help transform their business - or the infrastructure projects that they are working on.

Walter also told delegates that the potential of AI to work as an assistant alongside an expert team could be transformational. He pointed to his experience using a chatbot that helped to flag up potential Building Information Modeling (BIM) issues, adding: “It felt like we had an expert assistant working with us.”

And while some of the ideas being discussed remain a distance in the future, there are encouraging signs that companies are already getting on board with efforts to use the next generation of technology to give themselves a competitive advantage. “We are seeing more innovation budgets within projects,” said Walter, suggesting that this can be impactful over the course of a 30-year contract.

For all its potential, though, AI remains a controversial tool, and has understandably become a cause for concern over its potential ability to take over the workplace. Ahead of the conference, entrepreneur Elon Musk had told British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that AI will eventually mean no-one will need to work. Further, the rise of deepfake technology has raised issues around integrity, and the ability of technology to interfere with everything from elections to company share prices.

“AI is probably the biggest disruptor since the creation of the internet,” concluded Syrros. How that disruption is managed over the coming years will have a significant bearing on how infrastructure is developed and delivered, as well as who is delivering it.