Sofia Berger in Conversation with ChatGPT on Engineering in 2023 and Beyond

March 28, 2023
AI has some thoughts on engineering

Love it or hate it, it seems like everyone is talking about OpenAI’s ChatGPT. The AI tool is trained to think and write in ways that can sound eerily human. Now that it has worried university professors, college admissions directors, and even passed a medical licensing exam, how well could it do with engineering predictions? Sofia Berger, Senior Vice President and Transportation National Business Line Leader at WSP USA, one of the largest global engineering and sustainability consulting firms, determined to find out. 

The Ask: Sofia asked ChatGPT to write a 500-word essay predicting the five biggest challenges in engineering, infrastructure, transportation and the built environment in 2023. She also asked ChatGPT to consider the climate crisis and social equity in its response, and to include a call to action. Following is the content ChatGPT produced, along with Sofia’s perspective on how well it did.

ChatGPT: It's 2023, and the world looks a lot different than it did a decade ago. Climate change and social inequality have had a profound impact on our engineering, infrastructure, transportation, and built environment. In the past decade, our world has changed in ways nobody could have predicted, and these changes will continue in the years to come.

Sofia: I like where you’re headed, ChatGPT, though I disagree that the changes we’re experiencing were unpredictable. The science community, governments and business leaders have been aware of the impacts of climate change for decades.

ChatPGT: First, engineering has had to adapt to accommodate the increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. We've seen an uptick in the number of natural disasters, and engineers have had to develop new ways of protecting infrastructure and buildings from these events. This may include the use of stronger materials and better construction techniques, as well as exploring ways to make our infrastructure more resilient.

Sofia: This is definitely true. In 2022, we experienced 18 $1B+ extreme weather events in the US alone, and, as of mid-January, California has already declared a state of emergency due to storms and flooding. Yet, ChatGPT didn’t mention two key climate-related trends in engineering. First, instead of just using models based on past data to predict climate’s impacts, and outdated criteria to inform design, we’re relying on new technologies, such as Digital Twins, to look ahead 50 or even 100 years to design and build Future Ready infrastructure. These approaches may enable a shift from standards-based to risk-based planning. The second point ChatGPT missed is the adoption of nature-based solutions, which often solve multiple problems at once. Alongside “gray” infrastructure, such as concrete that traditionally requires costly maintenance and considerable carbon emissions, expect to see greater use of “green” infrastructure, such as large oyster beds that serve as living breakwaters.

ChatGPT: Second, infrastructure has had to become more efficient. As resources become scarce and energy prices rise, we've seen a shift towards smarter, more efficient infrastructure. This may include the use of renewable energy sources and the development of smart grids that can better manage energy use. We've also seen the emergence of new technologies such as self-driving cars and autonomous drones, which could revolutionize the way we transport goods and people.

Sofia: I agree that efficiency is key and the shift towards renewables and smart grids are critical. But neither self-driving cars nor autonomous drones would top my list for how we will increase efficiency in the near term. Far more significant is the momentum building around the electrification of passenger cars and vehicle fleets, from buses to postal trucks.  We’re also seeing growing interest in adaptive reuse and building retrofits to reduce the embodied carbon inherent in new construction, modular design and construction techniques that improve flexibility and lifespan, and smart buildings that capture data on light, temperature, and energy usage to decrease costs and improve wellbeing. For example, controlling temperature and CO2 levels in the buildings we design can enhance human health and increase productivity up to 10%.

ChatGPT: Third, transportation has had to become greener. With the rise of electric vehicles, public transport has become more efficient and cost-effective. We've also seen the emergence of new technologies such as bike sharing, which have made it easier for people to get around without relying on cars.

Sofia: Yes, transportation accounted for 29% of GHG emissions nationally in 2020 and is an area seeing considerable innovation. In 2023, expect electric vehicle infrastructure to expand to more diverse and rural communities. ChatGPT is right about public transport yet didn’t note that post-pandemic ridership remains down. This may be the year of broader adoption of integrated technology solutions that reduce costs for transportation agencies and make transport easier for commuters. Look for scale in programs like WSP’s Mobility Marketplace which offers travelers one account and one payment platform for all its multi-modal transportation needs. [1]

ChatGPT: Fourth, the built environment has had to become more equitable. We've seen a shift towards more sustainable forms of urban planning, such as green streets, green roofs and green walls, which can help reduce the urban heat island effect. We've also seen an increase in the number of green spaces, which can help improve air quality and provide people with much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Sofia: ChatGPT is right that equity needs to be more integrated into every aspect of the built environment, from planning to execution to re-engineering. Yet, the AI overlooked the potential impact of the once-in-a-generation Bipartisan Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Act. For example, we are working on expanded transportation systems that will provide access to better jobs, education and healthcare for underinvested communities.

ChatGPT: As we look towards the future, it's important to remember that the changes we make today can have a lasting impact on our environment and our society for years to come. Let's use this moment as an opportunity to make a collective commitment to creating a world that is more equitable, sustainable, and resilient. It's time to take action and make the changes necessary to ensure that our future is one of prosperity and opportunity.

Sofia: I like your optimism, ChatGPT! We are seeing a growing number of clients prioritize equity, sustainability and resilience. At WSP we call this Future Ready—it’s how we better anticipate future conditions and challenge our teams across the world to advise and design for this future as well as today.

Finally, I will add that nothing can replace an engineer’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills. That can never be replicated by a chatbot. R&B

Sofia Berger is Senior Vice President and Transportation National Business Line Leader at WSP USA.

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