In Pennsylvania, where 13 percent of the bridges have been classified as structurally deficient, engineers are using artificial intelligence to create lighter concrete blocks for new construction. Another project is using A.I. to develop a highway wall that can absorb noise from cars — and some of the greenhouse gas emissions that traffic releases as well.
At a time when the federal allocation of billions of dollars toward infrastructure projects would help with only a fraction of the cost needed to repair or replace the nation’s aging bridges, tunnels, buildings and roads, some engineers are looking to A.I. to help build more resilient projects for less money.
“These are structures, with the tools that we have, that save materials, save costs, save everything,” said Amir Alavi, an engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the consortium developing the two A.I. projects in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
The potential is enormous. The manufacturing of cement alone makes up at least 8 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, and 30 billion tons of concrete are used worldwide each year, so more efficient production of concrete would have immense environmental implications.
And A.I. — essentially machines that can synthesize information and find patterns and conclusions much as the human mind can — could have the ability to speed up and improve tasks like engineering challenges to an incalculable degree. It works by analyzing vast amounts of data and offering options that give humans better information, models and alternatives for making decisions.
It has the potential to be both more cost effective — one machine doing the work of dozens of engineers — and more creative in coming up with new approaches to familiar tasks.
But experts caution against embracing the technology too quickly when it is largely unregulated and its payoffs remain largely unproven. In particular, some worry about A.I.’s ability to design infrastructure in a process with several regulators and participants operating over a long period of time. Others worry that A.I.’s ability to draw instantly from the entirety of the internet could lead to flawed data that produces unreliable results. American infrastructure challenges have become all the more apparent in recent years.
A vast majority of the country’s roadways and bridges were built several decades ago, and as a result “infrastructure challenges are significant in many dimensions,” said Abdollah Shafieezadeh, a professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering at Ohio State University.
In the bridge project, engineers are using A.I. technology to develop new shapes for concrete blocks that use 20 percent less material while maintaining durability. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will use the blocks to construct a bridge; there are more than 12,000 in the state that need repair, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
Engineers in Pittsburgh are also working with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to design a more efficient noise-absorbing wall that will also capture some of the nitrous oxide emitted from vehicles. These new projects have not been tested in the field, but they have been successful in the lab environment, Dr. Alavi said.
Instead of investing large sums of money in repair projects, engineers and transportation agencies could identify problems early on, experts say, such as a crack forming in a bridge before the structure itself buckled. But, as in many fields, there are increasingly more conversations — and concerns — about the relationship between A.I., human work and physical safety.
“These are areas where A.I. can be significantly helpful,” said Seyede Fatemeh Ghoreishi, an engineering and computer science professor at Northeastern University. But A.I. has proved helpful in many uses, tech leaders have testified before Congress, pushing for regulations. And last month, President Biden issued an executive order for a range of A.I. standards, including safety, privacy and support for workers.
“Once it develops, I’m confident that we’ll get to a point where you’re less likely to get issues. We’re not there yet,” said Norma Jean Mattei, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Few doubt that in infrastructure projects and elsewhere, A.I. exists as a tool to be used by humans, not as a substitute for them.