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It’s Not Just Virtual: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on the Physical Landscape

It’s Not Just Virtual: The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on the Physical Landscape

Artificial intelligence (“AI”) is currently in a period of rapid growth, with applications varying from the ubiquitously known ChatGPT, to medical breakthroughs including algorithms that can more accurately identify heart disease. AI has permeated nearly every aspect of the virtual landscape, and is now presenting an impact on the physical environment as well.

Some have theorized that AI will have a role in advancing “smart cities”—which have been defined as cities that “put data and digital technology to work with the goal of improving the quality of life.” More concretely, a 2018 report by the McKinsey Global Institute theorized that technology could improve some quality-of-life indicators by 10–30%; potential positive outcomes include reducing fatalities, commuting time, and greenhouse-gas emissions while accelerating emergency responses.

Nonetheless, the picture may not be so rosy. As described in a 2021 research report for the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development, these technologies may present significant social, ethical, and privacy-related challenges when implemented in the urban domain. These dangers are highlighted by a 2018 scandal involving Dutch childcare benefits, in which algorithms employed by the Dutch government led to thousands of families being falsely accused of fraud and stripped of benefits to which they were entitled.

Despite these concerns, innovators continue to experiment with AI to shape the urban landscape. For example, the AI-powered construction management platform Buildots has been engaged for its first major project in New York City. Buildots has been utilizing its technology with respect to the construction of a new Columbus Circle Building at 1841 Broadway. The building, which will be 26-stories and 298 feet tall, will have about 197,000 square feet of residential space, and over 20,000 square feet of commercial retail space.

Buildots purportedly aims to minimize expensive delays and improve efficiency with respect to costs and labor by directly connecting managers to what occurs at the construction site. The company utilizes 360-cameras that are mounted on hard hats to capture images of ongoing projects while site inspections take place. Data captured by the 360-cameras is analyzed by Buildots’ AI algorithms, and the company’s platform then provides project management with real-time progress reports, along with visuals of the construction site. This technology also compares footage from workers’ hard hats to a model to assist with gauging the overall progress of a construction project.

AI is a new frontier with a vast number of untapped capabilities. Digital algorithms will undoubtedly continue to mold the physical landscape around us, and introduce a panoply of possibilities that may promote efficiency and improve quality of life. Nonetheless, it is important to stay mindful of the potential risks that lay ahead, so AI’s explosive progress does not go unchecked.

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By: Amanda Grannis