On 13 June, Timothy G. Wentz, PE, HBDP | Fellow / Presidential Member ASHRAE, gave the third of a series of three presentations over three weeks to the South African Chapter of ASHRAE. The third was on the topic of Back to the future: Our industry in 2030 hosted by the ASHRAE Society Chapter Technology Transfer Committee (CTTC). The following is a relatively complete review of the first part of that presentation, edited by Eamonn Ryan.

Timothy G. Wentz, PE, HBDP | Fellow / Presidential Member ASHRAE

Timothy G. Wentz, PE, HBDP | Fellow / Presidential Member ASHRAE

As we peer into the crystal ball of the HVAC&R sector, it becomes apparent that the future holds a multitude of possibilities. While uncertainties may cloud our vision, there are discernible trends that are already reshaping our industry. With advancements in technology at the forefront, it is crucial for us to understand and adapt to the changes that lie ahead.

Technology serves as the driving force behind the changes unfolding in the HVAC&R sector. From artificial intelligence (AI) to computational power, various advancements are already influencing the way we work, interact with clients, and produce products. A glance at recent headlines reveals the pervasive influence of technology, with articles focusing on AI and its potential in our industry. The ASHRAE journal, for instance, featured a lead article on AI, highlighting its relevance and significance in current discussions.

A fascinating aspect of technological progress is the exponential growth of computational power. Looking at calculations per second per USD1 000, we can witness the astonishing capabilities of our current computing power. Presently, our machines possess the computational abilities equivalent to a human brain—an achievement that provokes awe and curiosity. However, a truly mind-boggling prospect lies in the projected future, specifically 2045. By that time, computing power is predicted to reach the magnitude of all humanity combined, close to 10 billion people. This remarkable surge in computing power underpins the emergence of AI and its potential applications.

Stephen Hawking, the eminent English professor known for his prodigious intellect, drew attention to the significance of AI. He recognised that the success or failure of AI could shape the course of our civilisation. The potential benefits of AI are vast, but so are the risks. As AI continues to permeate various aspects of our lives, such as schools, universities, and even courtrooms, there is an urgent need to navigate its ethical and practical challenges.

Leading executives from Microsoft and Google emphasise the importance of prioritising the mitigation of risks associated with AI to prevent the potential threat of extinction. The mere mention of the word ‘extinction’ in relation to AI raises concerns and underscores the gravity of ASHRAE the situation.

The future of the HVAC&R sector hinges on our ability to embrace technological advancements while remaining vigilant. As AI becomes increasingly prevalent, we must adapt our practices, skill sets, and industry standards accordingly. Collaboration between industry professionals, policymakers, and educational institutions is essential to develop guidelines and regulations that promote the responsible use of AI. Emphasising transparency, accountability, and ongoing evaluation will help ensure that AI aligns with our values and objectives.

As AI becomes an integral part of our work, we need to redefine our approach to engineering. Image supplied by © Eamonn Ryan | RACA Journal.

As AI becomes an integral part of our work, we need to redefine our approach to engineering. Image supplied by © Eamonn Ryan | RACA Journal.

BENEFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

To understand the future of the HVAC&R sector, we must consider the changing landscape and evolving roles of engineers. As AI becomes an integral part of our work, we need to redefine our approach to engineering. This shift demands a focus on beneficial intelligence, guiding us toward actions that benefit humanity and promote ethical practices.

In navigating this transformative era, it is crucial to embrace core values that uphold the well-being of our industry and society. First and foremost, the principle of ‘do no harm’ should guide our decisions. By exercising caution and awareness, we can minimise the unintentional negative impacts of AI and technology.

Blue Dot, a Canadian company, demonstrated the early capabilities of AI during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their AI program accurately predicted the spread and severity of the disease, but unfortunately, its insights were not heeded. This serves as a reminder that AI can be a powerful tool for anticipating and mitigating risks, but only if we pay attention and act upon its recommendations.

AI’s potential benefits and risks have been portrayed in popular culture, from the helpful HAL in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to the destructive Skynet in the Terminator series. While these fictional examples highlight extreme scenarios, they raise valid concerns about the unintended consequences of unchecked AI development.

Just as autonomous cars will transform transportation, AI integration in engineering will reshape the HVAC&R sector. This evolution necessitates redefining our understanding of engineering and embracing new ways of working in collaboration with AI systems. Beneficial intelligence, focusing on what we should do rather than what we can do, will be a guiding principle in leveraging AI to improve building design and construction processes.

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approaches will become prevalent, enabling modular construction in factory settings. By manufacturing and assembling building components off-site, projects can be executed more effectively, efficiently, and safely. Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology will play a vital role in ensuring accurate module construction, facilitating seamless integration at the jobsite.

INTELLIGENT BUILDINGS AND SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS

The rise of AI will pave the way for intelligent buildings capable of self-designing, self-redesigning, self-diagnosing, and even self-healing. AI-driven systems will optimise energy usage, enhance occupant comfort, and adapt to changing environmental conditions. These intelligent buildings will enable us to address critical issues such as climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, playing a crucial role in the global effort to stabilise our planet’s climate.

Reflecting on the lessons learned from past experiences with unintended consequences, such as asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), we must exercise caution and responsibility in deploying emerging technologies.

Continued in part two…

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