AI could be the answer to one of the largest challenges of our time


Even though AI can automate parts of knowledge work, human competencies and specialties remain irreplaceable. So, AI should be seen as a revolutionary tool that frees up time for meaningful tasks and solves one of the largest challenges facing society. 

By: Morten Alsdorf, Senior Digital Transformation Director, COWI

”What prevents artificial intelligence from doing most of my work?”

In very short time, many of us in the knowledge industry have become stuck in a web of morbid career thoughts. Reeking worry, we find ourselves asking ourselves and others this exact question. 
On social media, it has become a popular pastime to correctly predict which lucrative jobs – or entire industries – will see their raison d'être pulverised by rapidly developing AI. 

It would be a shame to let ourselves be sucked into discussions and dark guessing games about who is the easiest to replace, when the far more interesting question is: ”What will soon be possible that was only just considered unimaginable?” 

Of course, it is much harder to come up with an answer to that question. Who can imagine the unimaginable? Still, as a consulting engineering group, we give it a go. Even though we should be wary to uncritically implement AI in all processes, the technology clearly offers enormous advantages – for companies, individuals and society. 

Today, COWI uses AI-based tools on several projects. One example is virtual inspection of bridges: A drone photographs cracks in bridges, AI analyses any cracks based on the images, and finally a bridge specialist interprets the results generated by the machine. The last part of the process is still the most important and absolutely irreplaceable for us at COWI. 

The core task of all our engineers is to add value to the projects we work on, and the emergence of AI does not change this one bit. On the contrary, it is a tool that can eliminate a number of routine, time-consuming and – let's be honest – mundane tasks. 

To engineering professionals, this means that they get to spend more of their working hours on creative problem solving and innovation. In other words, AI frees up time for diving deep into the types of task that all engineers are passionate about. 

Most likely, this will ultimately boost career dynamics; Young people choosing the engineering path will be able to work on a much broader palette of exciting and ground-breaking projects that their senior colleagues could ever hope to do. In light of the ominously low enrolment in engineering programmes in Denmark, year after year, we should highlight these perspectives when talking about AI. 

We are already seeing a pronounced shortage of engineers. Being in an industry with fierce competition over talents, we sometimes have to say no to taking on some of the many complex projects that are part of the transition to a more sustainable world, because we simply cannot recruit enough people. Consequently, the transition is slower than it needs to be. 

At COWI, we have a clear idea of how AI can support large parts of our tasks in the future, and we are preparing and developing the organisation to seize this possibility in the most efficient way. In that perspective, the development of AI is probably one of the most important drivers of our efforts to accelerate the expansion of green energy and implementation of critical infrastructure projects. 

Moreover, the shortage of employees is not limited to the engineering industry. At the end of May, the Danish Minister for Finance proclaimed in Børsen (print version, 24 May) the shortage of hands and minds "the single largest challenge facing us in the coming years". We should keep this in mind as we worry about losing our job.

And even when technology does render many functions superfluous, history shows us that the labour market adapts over time when new technology changes the rules of the game. Indeed, a recent analysis by American Professor of Economics David Autor and his colleagues at MIT shows that 60 per cent of the current specialist fields in our labour force did not exist 80 years ago. 

The real question is whether the labour market can keep up with the pace of AI. The only way to keep up is if we, the businesses, and the rest of society orientate ourselves towards the possibilities instead of turning our backs on them out of fear. 

No one can predict how artificial intelligence will change our world – for better or for worse. Most likely, somewhere in-between, but right now it looks to present far more opportunities than threats. 

By Morten Alsdorf, Senior Digital Transformation Director, COWI, COWI
Brought as op-ed in Danish news media Børsen

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