With AI Big in Construction, Don’t Skimp on Respect and Ethics

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“Revolutionary” is often overused when discussing technology. In recent decades, despite the emergence of many new tools claiming to be revolutionary, only a handful have been transformative, changing the way we live and work. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) appears to be one of those. 

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Across industries, AI has already shown its ability to provide competitive advantages, and as a result has become the fastest adopted business technology ever. From finance to health care to retail, AI is being used to improve efficiency, reduce costs and advance innovation. In construction (which has historically been a slow adopter), a wide range of early AI use cases has emerged, including powering autonomous equipment, improving safety/risk management on sites, processing documents and resource allocation planning

This rapid adoption of AI is not only powering new industry tools and processes but also driving explosive demand for construction of physical data centers needed to support the technology. Across America, data center absorption has broken records. Estimates have found facilities are in short supply, and forecasts suggest demand will likely continue growing by 10 percent a year until 2030 as investment pours in.

Scott Cannon
Scott Cannon. Photo: BigRentz

In the face of massive demand for new physical construction and amid the tantalizing benefits that early adoption may offer, it’s critical that the industry’s embrace of AI is done strategically, ethically, and with a healthy respect for both the technology and the people it will impact. 

In our new AI era, a paradox and a common concern unfolds: Technology designed to improve productivity simultaneously poses a potential threat to employment. 

Thankfully, early returns across industries have shown AI is less of a job destroyer than many feared. Recent discussions at the World Economic Forum suggested that engineering and construction firms specifically were least likely to anticipate cuts due to AI. Therefore, it’s critical that the industry not fall victim to tropes and fears about AI that will hinder its embrace. Rather, the industry must take a proactive approach, viewing AI as a tool that empowers rather than replaces. “Get on board or get left behind” becomes the rallying cry. 

The industry is at an important crossroads. It must maintain a balance to ensure that technology does not come at the expense of human well-being. One way to strike that balance is by providing staff with training or resources when implementing AI. Short educational courses to help improve familiarity and proficiency go a long way, and show a commitment to respect for both people and technology. 

As AI reshapes construction industry tools and processes, a parallel phenomenon unfolds: the race to construct data centers. This gold rush should prompt a critical examination of sustainability and risks of overbuilding. Drawing lessons from recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in commercial real estate, highlighting the consequences of overbuilding and oversupply, perhaps most notably in the office sector.

On one hand, it’s essential that more infrastructure — including data centers, networks and other hardware that support AI applications — be built. However, the industry must be mindful of the lasting impacts that unchecked development can have on property values and the overall stability of communities. Investing in, and building, AI data centers presents ethical considerations, especially in the wake of lessons learned from the pandemic. 

The industry must recognize the need for strategic, forward-thinking decisions that align with long-term industry stability.

A framework and guiding principles anchored in respect and ethics become imperative to ensure responsible integration of AI in construction. Transparency, accountability and ethical scrutiny should be the guiding principles in development and deployment. Envisioning a future where AI enhances productivity without compromising ethical standards is not just a goal but a necessity. 

As these ethical considerations shape the industry’s AI journey, they must extend to the very facilities and infrastructure built to support it. Resisting the temptation of overbuilding, guided by the lessons of the past, will be key.

Leaders should approach AI with optimism, tempered by caution. The need for collaborative dialogue, ethical oversight and responsible innovation is paramount to harnessing the benefits of AI while mitigating its risks. The potentially transformative effects of AI are undeniable but demand a conscientious approach for sustained success. As the industry navigates the uncharted, the challenge is clear: Respect the technology to embrace innovation without sacrificing ethics, sustainability or human welfare.

Scott Cannon is CEO of BigRentz, a leading technology solution and digital platform automating construction equipment procurement.