My previous article concerning artificial intelligence (AI) related implications for engineering and construction sparked two related topics of feedback.

Firstly, concerning AI as an enabling technology: Does this looming innovation represent a great leap forward or the beginning of the end for mankind?

Secondly and more specifically, does AI spell doom and gloom for the industry?

In gaining some perspective regarding technological change, it is worth considering the revolutionary way in which change has shaped our world.

The rise of the industrial age from the mid-1700s, saw many human activities necessary for survival such as farming and artisan handcrafts morphing into jobs supporting mass production.

The technological age that followed, enabled vast numbers of work-related activities to be systematised and then digitised.

The corresponding transition of economies from agriculture-based, to manufacturing-and-consumer-oriented has eventually necessitated a shift from finite fossil-based to renewable energy sources to enable sustainable growth.

Disruptive change in this context, such as the widespread loss of coal-mining jobs in the UK in the mid-1980s or the decimation of automotive manufacturing in the US from the early 1970s, could perhaps be considered to be upheavals along the path towards inevitable outcomes.

John Button was an Australian politician who served in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments including Minister for Industry and Commerce from 1983 to 1993. His “Button Plan” – or more correctly, series of bespoke plans – was intended to chart a middle ground between protectionism and unfettered market forces, in managing the international competitiveness of a range of local industries from steelmaking to automobile manufacture and shipbuilding.

During this period Button carried through major changes in industry policy, lowering tariffs and reducing other forms of protectionism in the face of massive effects on the jobs and lives of many industry stakeholders. Notwithstanding the efforts in managing change, major job losses in manufacturing provoked widespread disruption and bitter opposition particularly among Labor’s trade union base.

AI promises global, revolutionary change and has the capability and capacity to create far greater upheaval in a shorter timeframe than anything that has gone before.

Industry competition is now far more internationally based in comparison with the mid-1980s. Effective management of change, as history shows, was difficult enough to achieve in the mid-1980s. Managing the existential risk of this coming AI-driven change would require a level of international regulation and coordination never achieved in our history.

So, let’s turn then to the ability of the engineering and construction industry to adapt to the looming AI revolution.

On many occasions I’ve referred to engineering and construction as a “feast and famine” industry, driven by boom-and-bust economic cycles. This defining characteristic, whilst the source of many of the problems plaguing the industry, is also the basis our greatest strength: adaptability in the face of disruptive change.

AI is purpose-built to replicate the human brain’s processes of deduction (applying logical rules) and induction (recognising patterns of causation in data). Abduction, being the ability to look beyond regularity and understand ambiguity, is proving to be a tougher nut for generative AI to crack.

Perhaps then, the question is this: Would you bet against human ingenuity, which history demonstrates is mankind’s defining attribute?

Peter Wilkinson – Director, Sam Wilko Advisory

Author of “The Steel Ceiling: Achieving Sustainable Growth in Engineering and Construction” Wiley, 2023