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When AI Gets Real

by: René Morkos is the founder of ALICE Technologies
René Morkos
René Morkos
The promise and problems of AI have become a national conversation in 2023, as we touched on in our April piece highlighting generative AI. Some journalists are waxing rhapsodic about all the crazy things that AI can already do. Others are writing with concern about things it is doing and could do.

This high-level bluster attracts attention. However, the most significant opportunities for AI are not in the clouds, but in the weeds. It is the practical, focused application of this technology that has the greatest potential to change our world. And industry by industry, function by function, it is already taking root.

Following Project Progression
Construction has long been a sector with little patience for “hand waving” technologists. As a result, it is particularly interesting that AI is already driving major changes in this arena. What kinds of companies are putting AI to work in construction? And how?

Consider Buildots. Buildots customers use this company’s software to get a current, realistic picture of how their projects are progressing. Crew members on site wear hardhats equipped with cameras that capture images of the job site as people go about their normal daily work. The images are then uploaded to the Buildots platform, which is where the magic happens. AI-powered algorithms process these images to ascertain where things stand in comparison to the original plan. And the platform’s predictive capabilities enable Buildots users to determine where a project is then most likely to run into problems.

With these insights, builders can prioritize work to address critical issues first. Assessing the gap between “reality vs. plan” has long been a challenge in construction. The application of AI to the problem is an excellent example of the practical way in which technology is being applied in a pragmatic industry.

Increased Security
Keeping construction sites secure is a difficult endeavor, particularly if they are remote. It is estimated that $1 billion is lost annually in the U.S. due to theft from construction sites, and only 10-15 percent of the equipment stolen from sites is ever recovered. Manual surveillance is expensive and imperfect, and with expensive equipment, supplies and structures at risk, project owners have long been interested in better solutions.

Here, too, AI is producing answers. For example, Twenty20 Solutions has brought AI to its video monitoring solutions to help project owners keep their sites more secure. The technology detects and sorts human, vehicle, and animal activity, enabling the company’s Manned Monitoring Center to address potential threats and engage law enforcement as necessary. Twenty20’s products make the most of both machines and men, with AI flagging threats and humans then determining how best to address them. It is an innovative-yet-sensible approach to tech that is in character for the construction industry.

Better Scheduling
Like site security, construction scheduling is another historically “low tech” field that is changing significantly with the introduction of new technology. ALICE Technologies has brought the power of generative AI to the process of scheduling the construction of capital projects such as bridges, data centers, and oil processing plants.
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Historically, GCs and owners have used “old school” tools like Microsoft Project and Oracle’s Primavera 6 to create their schedules. Doing so was complex and time consuming, which meant that builders generally didn’t have the time and flexibility to evaluate options and instead created just one schedule based on the experience of long-time schedulers.

But with ALICE, companies can create thousands of potential construction schedules and then experiment further with promising options using “what if'' analysis. Through this ability to “build” potential projects numerous times before ever actually breaking ground, ALICE users can create schedules that not only reduce delivery times and costs, but also reduce risk. Once again, the construction industry is using AI to improve a task that is fundamental and essential.

‘Low Key’ Impacts
The AI stories that are grabbing the limelight are playing out in areas like the music industry, where a “ghost writer” recently used AI to produce a song that featured the “cloned” voices of Drake and The Weeknd, or film and television, where writers have gone on strike to protest the use of tools like ChatGPT to produce scripts.

While these are “flashy” examples of AI at work, the most significant impacts on our world will likely emerge in industries that are decidedly more “low key.” Construction is just such a sector – not nearly as glamorous as the entertainment world, yet the global value of the construction industry is more than $12 trillion annually. It is a segment that determines where we live, how we travel, where we work, and more. And it is in influential-yet-less-showy categories like these that the advent of AI will drive the greatest change.

René Morkos is the founder of ALICE Technologies and is an adjunct professor at Stanford University's Ph.D. program in construction engineering. Morkos obtained his Ph.D. in artificial intelligence applications for construction as a Charles H. Leavell fellow at Stanford. He is a second-generation civil engineer with over 15 years of construction industry experience that is divided between industry and academia.

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