Not so long ago, a journalist asked me an interesting question: “Do you believe the work of the structural engineer can ever be replaced by artificial intelligence”. I think she was somewhat taken aback when I answered “Yes”.
But before the esteemed readership of this magazine floods Verulam with missives of indignation, let me explain that I qualified my answer; I postulated that while almost all the technical work undertaken by structural engineers at every level could, in theory, be overtaken by artificial intelligence (and that it would be highly complacent of us as a profession to assume our more “left brained” tendencies were irreplaceable) the art of the structural engineer would always remain.
Which begs the question, as structural engineers, what do we really mean by design? When I was at university over 30 years ago, much of our course work was taken up learning the hard, number-crunching ways of analysing structures, while “design” lessons generally involved practising the use of codes and standards to select and detail structural elements. For the 21st-century structural engineer, these are processes which can now be almost entirely automated. Our real value comes in understanding when and how to apply the increasingly complex tools at our disposal to deliver value and creativity to our clients and stakeholders.
So in this special issue of The Structural Engineer, we set out to describe how far our profession has come, and where it might be going, in the development of digital design tools, and what this might mean for structural engineers of the future.