How engineers are fostering a new synergy between human and machine

engineer and robot

Written by Richard Shennan, Group Digital Business Development Director, Mott Macdonald

In the end digital transformation comes back to people, and the challenges in planning and delivery of infrastructure investments has much in common with other sectors. What is it that we seek to achieve, individually and collectively? What does the rise of automation and machine learning mean for our future roles? How can we establish ourselves in roles that are rewarding both in enabling us to make meaningful contribution to those goals? How do we develop our skills and build experience to enable us to be the best that we can be in a digital world?

Machines are here to stay and every year they become more powerful, especially in their ability to process data. Machine learning is one of the fastest growing technologies, and most forward-looking commentators herald the inevitable progress of artificial intelligence. So where does that leave us humans?

The concept of augmented delivery that we have developed at Mott MacDonald expresses the need for a new synergy between human and machine, which liberates humans to do what they do best, based on our characteristics of intuition, judgement, empathy and the innate quest for innovation. The essential role of humans starts with setting the direction. We increasingly realising that in a rapidly changing world, past data alone cannot adequately provide us with that forward direction. In the same way as machine learning has the potential to lock in prejudices that we seek to leave behind, it could also lock-in decisions that are already out of date as we grapple with climate change, environmental degradation and global social challenges as well as economic pressures. Humans must remain in charge of the direction, and bring in machines to support their decision making.

Liberating people to spend their time on higher value activities will free up invaluable resources to address the scale of the challenge ahead for all of us in the industry in delivering enhanced social, economic and environmental outcomes from limited resources. In order to do this we need to look at how best to deploy the power of machines to achieve our intended outcomes, and make adjustments to our capital project delivery model to realise those benefits. In our augmented delivery model we set out three steps:

Integrate – Enhance – Liberate

 

Integrate

The first step requires a change in the way in which the various project participants, including investors and clients as well as suppliers, work together in pursuit of the defined objective. The need for improvement has long been recognised, with the most comprehensive work of recent times being Project 13 from the UK Infrastructure Client Group, which sets out the concept of an enterprise approach. Through its digital stream it captured the realisation that data and technology are key enablers. From a technology perspective the early visionaries of BIM saw how information could become the driving force for collaborative working, and a clear trail can be plotted from the 2009 publication of BS 1192 through the production of the PAS 1192 series by the UK Government task group to the development of the global standard ISO 19650. The work of humans now is to imagine how procurement, process and technology can be developed to change behaviours. We must set up the models for project data environments that enable the full power of today’s technology to be applied to support the collaborative decision-making that will drive up quality and reduce waste.

 

Enhance

Machines are exceptionally good at processing data and carrying out repetitive tasks – and getting better. They can look at hundreds of options and scenarios in the time that it would take a human to look at one, ensuring a closer match to the project objectives. They can move data between applications provided that they have been developed to enable that. Automation and computational design are now a focus area across the industry. While machines deployed in this way do indeed bring substantial efficiencies, the much bigger prize of realising the full benefits of modern methods of construction and feeding structured data into operational systems require the end-to-end process to be re-imagined. If we look at the process as a series of information transactions, provided by various project participants from concept designers to fabricators at levels of detail appropriate to the sequence of decisions that need to made by the parties, we would end up with a new approach to the procurement of information, to the management of projects and to the optimum application of machines to automate elements of that process.

 

Liberate

Both of the above transformational developments require imagination. The key decisions along the project timeline will be made by people because the future will not be the same as the past. The information value chain leads up to knowledge, but information itself does not replace knowledge. And so we come back to people. Machines can help us look at multiple scenarios for the future, and help us move more quickly, but the future that transpires will depend on the human decisions that we all make. It is ultimately humans that set the direction forward and must take the lead in establishing the new synergy, moving from human + machine to human x machine.


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