Emily Guglielmo, SE, PE, F.SEI
2023-2024 SEAOC President
Experts estimate that over 35% of structural engineering tasks could be automated by artificial intelligence (AI) in the United States.
If true, this estimate would place us just behind that predicted for the administrative and legal professions. The impact of AI in our profession would surpass science, business, finance, and sales. A profession historically resistant to change, we find ourselves at a pivotal juncture.
Structural engineering is both susceptible and alluring to the transformative power of AI. Our profession is codified, mathematical, prescriptive, and commands compensation large enough to attract interest beyond our borders. Venture capitalists are pouncing on the opportunities associated with AI in our profession. They are establishing structural engineering companies, using AI to automate designs, and circumventing traditional consulting firms to engage directly with stakeholders.
AI is not simply an impending wave; it is at an inflection point demanding our close attention. The choice before us is clear: a future colored by fear or one illuminated with promise. Amid the risks of job displacement lies a profound opportunity for a symbiotic relationship between AI and human creativity. The potential to swiftly solve complex problems, enhance lives, and forge a force for good is within reach. Achieving these goals requires vision, open-mindedness, and dedication to optimize the use of AI.
We might not recognize it; however, we interact with AI on a regular basis. Personal assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Microsoft's "Co-Pilot" AI facilitate a seamless transition from thoughts to paper. Embracing AI's low-hanging fruit to create a first draft of an email or a report invites us to explore its potential. The use of AI for reports can complete 80% of the effort "for free," allowing for a high-quality finished product and/or significant time savings.
Challenges loom large, including preserving development of engineering principles, quality control, and regulation compliance. Recognizing the potential of AI to perpetuate bias, leveraging diverse data sets, and scrutinizing algorithms for fairness and equity are crucial for responsible AI integration.
While concerns appropriately exist for AI, opportunities abound. AI has the potential to liberate engineers from monotonous tasks, resulting in increased opportunities for innovation and problem-solving. AI will inevitably widen the gap between high-performing and low-performing entities, empowering top talent to tackle significant challenges while lower performers risk being replaced. As we embrace AI, soft skills, such as business development, communication, and relationship-building are even more critical.
As AI inevitably diminishes the significance of portions of our traditional business, it is imperative to proactively explore alternative avenues for value creation, such as de-carbonizing buildings, innovating new systems, or refining project delivery opportunities. We must structure our compensation around value, not hours. Those who move AI closer to the client gain a competitive advantage, while those who ignore or underutilize AI face a race to the bottom.
I admit the path forward is uncertain. However, open-mindedness, willingness to embrace change, and empowerment of our youth can harness AI's potential for good. We stand at a fork in the road – a dystopian future with job loss or a utopia where we are liberated from menial tasks, empowered as problem-solving innovators. The choice is ours.
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