On any given day, project managers at construction sites must make decisions and answer questions. Although such demands often require a time-consuming review of documents and computer files, they may also necessitate rapid responses because of urgency and time sensitivity.
While working as a construction manager immediately after leaving college, I experienced this problem firsthand. I was told that my daily tasks were mainly to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with various project stakeholders on- and off-site while ensuring that the project was on time and on schedule. In reality, however, I was constantly being bombarded with questions that required immediate answers such as “20 workers called in sick and did not show up; what should we do?”, “How much delay do you anticipate by the end of the month?”, and “What is our cash flow projection for the end of the quarter?”
To answer some of the many questions, I had to find information in an archive of disorganized files and isolated documents or request information and wait for it. The process was so time-consuming that sometimes I had to work three to four hours of unpaid overtime. It was frustrating and I wished I could talk to my computer and ask it to find the relevant information that I needed at the moment to answer a question or make a better decision. Without the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), which was still in its infancy at the time, a computer was unable to perform such tasks. Thanks to conversational AI technologies such as ChatGPT, however, the communication I wished for then is possible today.
How Conversational AI Can Change Construction
Conversational AI is a branch of AI in which scientists have worked to build computer systems that mimic human communication. This technology enables us to interact or communicate with a computer system (through dialogue or text) as we would with other human beings. Conversational AI technology, however, is not new. The first conversational chatbot, ELIZA, was created in the ‘60s, and in the past decade, we have witnessed the growing popularity of Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, and Google Assistant –technologies for shopping, answering questions, completing simple tasks, and surfing the Internet. In November 2022, OpenAI introduced a game-changing technology in conversational AI called ChatGPT, which is capable of answering questions, writing computer programs, translating language, summarizing text, and even writing poems. With the inception of ChatGPT, many have had an “aha” moment, realizing that AI can be used to create engaging, natural-sounding conversation that enhances the user experience. With more than 13 million users a day, ChatGPT has become one of the most popular conversational AI technologies.
With its ability to mimic human conversation, ChatGPT has contributed to breaking down barriers between humans and machines and opened up new possibilities for the use of conversational AI in a wide range of industries, from customer service to education to health care.
Why does this AI technology matter to the construction industry? With increased project complexity, reduced project duration, and growing expectations from clients and stakeholders, we now more than ever need to have all relevant project information at our fingertips to ensure that projects meet deadlines and stay within budget.
From an in-depth discussion with our clients and industry thought leaders about the benefits of conversational AI to the construction industry, we formulated a non-exhaustive list of the top three benefits of AI technology to construction managers:
Data-Backed Rather Than On-The-Spot
A number of sources produce terabytes of data on construction sites daily. Without the right tool, a project manager might find it extremely difficult and counterproductive to locate relevant information in a timely manner. A question-answering technology such as ChatGPT, capable of reviewing a vast amount of data to find information and analyze and synthesize the findings, can send the most relevant information to a project manager who can then make an informed decision. For companies that hire less experienced project managers, optimal answers to questions such as “What are common potential issues that we have encountered on similar projects in the past?” or “What are the potential risks I should consider at the site today?” could be critical to the success of their projects.
Collaboration Rather Than Isolation
One of the biggest hurdles in collaborating with internal and external project stakeholders is waiting for information. Project stakeholders, who may have their own timeline and priorities, may not always be able to provide the required information in a timely manner. As a construction task cannot begin until the information becomes available, it can delay the project schedule and increase costs. A ChatGPT-like technology can reduce the wait time by providing answers to questions and streamlining communication among project parties, enhancing collaboration in the construction industry.
Tech Adoption Rather Than Tech Fatigue
Today, the construction industry has over 10,000 startups and tech solutions, each with its own workflows and user interfaces.It is crucial that construction companies select the right tool, allocate a training budget, and ensure the full adoption of their technology investment in the field. For workers in the field, learning how to use a software tool may resemble learning a new and difficult language.
What if, instead of learning new workflows and working with user interfaces, these tools were integrated with conversational AI technology? Imagine a day when those in the field, instead of interacting with a user interface, can communicate with their software of choice just as they do now with Alexa and Siri. Such an engaging and interactive experience would result in lower training costs, less work disruption, higher quality data, and increased tech adoption in the industry.
Preparing Your Company for Conversational AI
The first step in preparing your company is to define clear project goals and the key outcomes that you wish to use conversational AI to achieve. Next, you need to structure your data and identify gaps according to the project goals. After you prepare your data, you begin to train and validate a conversational AI model customized and tailored to your business needs. Finally, you have to test and measure the performance of your AI solution against the goals of your project. Testing and validating an AI model in a few pilot projects before scaling it across the organization is crucial to the success of your project.
From finding to synthesizing information for creating checklists, answering RFIs, or simply answering questions backed by data, conversational AI technology is now available to help you make better decisions, enhance communication and collaboration, and rapidly change the industry.
With conversational AI solutions, you will save time that you can spend on work that is more meaningful and valuable to your project and clients. By multiplying the hours you saved by the number of managers and employees in your company, you’ll quickly see how much this technology can save in operational costs and enhance the efficiency and productivity of your organization and the industry as a whole.
Mehdi Nourbakhsh, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and CEO of YegaTech, a technology consulting company in the AEC industry. With a decade of experience in the research and development of innovative AI solutions in the AEC and manufacturing industry at YegaTech, Autodesk, and GeorgiaTech, Mehdi brings a unique perspective. In his book written for construction innovators and professionals, Augment It: How Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Leaders Leverage Data and Artificial Intelligence to Build a Sustainable Future, Mehdi explains how construction leaders can invent, innovate, and augment their capabilities using AI.