IBM’s Watson supercomputer has beat Jeopardy champions, reconstituted recipes, and even helped create highlight reels for the World Cup. Now it’s taking on a new tech challenge; changing how the construction industry operates.
A new partnership between IBM and Fluor, a global engineering and construction company, will put the supercomputer’s computational skills to work on making building more efficient.
The new Watson-based system, in development since 2015 and now in use on select projects, will be able to analyze a job site “like a doctor diagnoses a patient,” according to Leslie Lindgren, Fluor’s vice president of Information Management. That degree of risk analysis, predictive logistics, and comprehension is no small challenge given the complexity of today’s construction megaprojects.
“These are multibillion dollar project sites, that are like walking into a city,” says Lindgren. “The sheer volume of data is tremendous.”
On especially complicated projects, Fluor will begin using two new tools, the EPC Project Health Diagnostics and the Market Dynamics/Spend Analytics, to make sense of the thousands of data points found on a crowded construction site. Constant analysis will help forecast issues before they show up, and automate how materials and workers are distributed. Eventually, the system will develop natural language functionality.
“Think of it as a living and breathing system,” says Sai Yadati, a partner for IBM Global Business Services. “This is truly one-of-a-kind for the marketplace.”
Applying artificial intelligence to the field won’t bring robots in hard hats, at least not anytime soon. But it can help with cost, scheduling, and quality for an industry in need of cost cutting. According to a McKinsey & Co. analysis, construction projects routinely lose up to a third of their value to waste.
“Construction is one of the least digitized industries, so many startups are seizing the opportunity to build technology that would increase efficiency within this market,” Michael Wholey, an intelligence analyst for CB Insights, told Curbed.
Startups sees opportunity in construction
The sharp rise in startup funding in the AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) space makes it an ideal time to sell the promise of AI for the building trades. According to data from CB Insights, the industry saw $882.3 million in venture capital investment last year across 103 deals, and has already bested that in 2018, racking up $1.38 billion across 61 deals. KcKinsey found the construction tech industry has benefited from $18 billion in investment since 2013.
While AI’s more fervent converts predict massive leaps forward with adoption of the evolving technology, analysts predict construction will see more moderate gains.
Turns out the technology gap can’t be leapfrogged immediately; that same McKinsey analysis found that while AI could offer extensive benefits, “few E&C firms or owners currently have the capabilities—including the personnel, processes, and tools—to implement them.”