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How Generative AI will Transform Civil Engineering

Artificial intelligence (AI) was originally defined by emeritus Stanford Professor John McCarthy in 1955 as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.” Today, AI refers to computer systems capable of performing complex tasks that historically only a human could do, such as reasoning, making decisions, or solving problems.

Unlike traditional AI, generative AI learns patterns and structures from vast amounts of data and can create new content, such as text, images, music, and even plans and designs. Unlike other types of AI trained to recognize existing patterns, it generates entirely new and unique content. Generative AI is already working behind the scenes in various industries, often powering the tools we use every day. For example, autonomous vehicles make decisions about speed, direction, changing lanes, taking exists, or slowing down during bad weather through generative AI. Similarly, apps like Google Translate use deep learning algorithms to translate text from one language to another, and AI Note Taker can transcribe multiple speakers to turn meetings into actionable notes. ChatGPT also uses large language models (LLM) to generate text in response to user questions.

According to a 2023 MIT report on generative AI, the impact of generative AI on economies and enterprise will be revolutionary. Like any technological advancement, AI will have both advantages and disadvantages. And inevitably, AI capabilities will have enormous impacts on the field of civil engineering.

Civil engineering is one of the largest consumer-based industries—worth billions of dollars a year—yet it is under-digitized. Integrating AI into civil engineering opens new possibilities for addressing industry challenges. With the help of AI, civil engineers can already design and construct smarter buildings, bridges, and infrastructure. Civil engineers can also optimize their decision-making processes by leveraging AI technologies, improving project efficiency, automating daily processes and reporting requirements, enhancing site safety, and more.

In “The Rise of the Super Civil Engineer: How AI is Transforming the AEC Industry,” Aneesh Goly argues that the rise of the “super civil engineer” does not mean that AI is replacing human workers but that AI is enhancing their skills and capabilities. We all need to be proficient in using these tools and to work collaboratively with machines. “This is driving a new era of education and training, where engineers are learning how to work with AI to improve their work processes and outcomes,” says Goly.

For example, applying AI to the use of CCTV in engineering and construction to gather and interpret condition assessment data is revolutionizing the industry. Engineers are already identifying site safety hazards using CCTV powered by AI tools, as well as automated defect recognition (ADR) capabilities to automatically detect conditions in water and sewer infrastructure inspections.

Interpreting condition assessment data using computer-aided models has already sped up data analysis, meaning teams can arrive at conclusions in minutes versus days or weeks. All these tools rely heavily on AI capabilities for more accurate data, which can potentially revolutionize the way we monitor, maintain, and use our infrastructure.

Just a few potential AI applications in the civil engineering industry include:

Generative Design. AI can help teams evaluate criteria such as cost, structural integrity, safety, and environmental factors.

Parametric Design. AI enables engineers to create design models that can be adjusted automatically, allowing for iteration and design optimization.

Structural Analysis and Simulation. AI can be used to perform complex structural analysis and simulations to assess the behavior of buildings, bridges, and other structures under various stress conditions and optimize structural design.

Energy Efficiency and Sustainability. AI can help suggest improvements to reduce energy consumption and analyze environmental data.

3D Modeling and Visualization. AI can assist in creating 3D BIM models to better understand building design and make informed decisions.

Risk Assessment. AI can be used for project planning and assessing potential risks and mitigation requirements for factors like weather conditions and geological data.

Cost Estimation and Budgeting. AI can be used to generate accurate cost estimates by analyzing historical project data, material, and labor costs. It can help with preparing budgets and managing expenses.

Project Scheduling. AI can optimize project schedules by analyzing project requirements, resource availability, and potential delays. This can help in managing construction timelines more effectively.

Quality Control and Monitoring. AI is a great tool for quality control during construction for analyzing data from onsite sensors and cameras. It can detect structural defects or issues in real-time and ensure that the project meets design specifications.

Data-Driven Decision Making. AI can process and analyze vast amounts of data from various sources, enabling engineers to make data-driven decisions in the design and construction process.

Asset Management. AI can be a great resource in the maintenance and management of infrastructure assets by predicting maintenance needs, assessing the condition of structures, and optimizing asset lifecycles.

Collaboration and Communication. AI-powered tools can enhance collaboration among design teams, contractors, and stakeholders by providing real-time updates, project tracking, and seamless communication.

Similarly, AI is playing a significant role in transforming the transportation industry by improving efficiency and safety. A few examples of AI involvement in transportation engineering include traffic management and optimization, autonomous vehicles, and intelligent transportation systems. AI is also making a significant impact on water and wastewater engineering and improving the efficiency, sustainability, and management of critical assets. And in construction inspection and management, AI is providing real-time insights, automating tasks, and improving decision-making processes to improve efficiency, safety, and accuracy. AI can ensure construction projects comply with regulatory requirements and building codes by monitoring and providing alerts for violations.

In its report on The Implications of Generative AI for Businesses, Deloitte predicts that the market for Generative AI will likely “double every two years for the next decade” and that, ultimately, “generative AI could create a more profound relationship between humans and technology, even more than the cloud, the smartphone, and the internet did before.” We can say with confidence that, very soon, AI will transform our lives and the way we work. AI will be exciting to follow over the coming years, and those who embrace these new opportunities will gain a significant advantage. Fortunately, humans will always be required to make sure the machines and models work well—because there is just no replacement for the power of the human brain!

Rizwan Siddiqi, PE, is President & CEO of EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 240.547.1125, rizwan.siddiqi@ebaengineering.com, or on LinkedIn.

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Rizwan Siddiqi
RizwanSiddiqi@gmail.com