From analog machines to machines learning: the Pittsburgh District’s nascent relationship with artificial intelligence

The robot apocalypse isn't coming anytime soon.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District
Published Oct. 11, 2023
A robot wearing a lifejacket while boating down a river.

Bubbles, the water safety robot, always wears a life jacket when he is out on the waterways. This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

Artificially-generated photo of beavers working on engineering documents.

Disclaimer: no beaver ever gave engineering advice to the Corps of Engineers. This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

An aerial view of the K-25 gas diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

A historical photo of the K-25 gas diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, which was constructed to assist in creating and concealing the atomic bomb. Camouflaged under the “Manhattan District,” this district was established in 1942 with no geographical boundaries to keep the project under wraps. Instead, the Manhattan District had three primary project sites: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

An aerial photo of the vehicle assembly building at Cape Canaveral.

Coincidentally, the vehicle assembly building (VAB) at Cape Canaveral became the world’s then-largest building in the world when it was finished in 1966. This historical photo shows the construction of the VAB, which stood at 525 feet and covered almost eight acres once completed. The VAB remains the final assembly point for the shuttle orbiter, external fuel tank, and twin solid-rocket boosters prior to shuttle launches. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

A man operates levers while standing on a lock wall.

James Burford, the lockmaster for Allegheny River locks 4-9, demonstrates how the old hydraulic system works at Allegheny River Lock 6 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, Sept. 18, 2023. The system used a singular hydraulic system and required manual operation to open the lock gates. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Andrew Byrne)

Small Unmanned Aircraft System

Brian Hickinbotham, a cartographer for the geospatial section with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, flies a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS) to capture video footage at the Dashields Locks and Dam in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, Aug. 27, 2021. The geospatial section also uses their SUAS to produce orthographic photos for mapping and to collect videos for virtual walkthroughs and assist with engineering plans. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret)

Artificially-generated photo of a robot on a river.

Bubbles, the water safety robot, dreams of one day being the next ‘big thing.’ This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

Artificial intelligence (AI) took the world by storm in 2023 when various rapidly-improving text-language models became publicly available. Since then, the human race has delved into the wacky, wild world of AI and faced some pressing questions: how do I trust the content I find online? Is my self-driving car plotting world domination? Will my toaster have a midlife crisis?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District also is facing some of these questions since today’s world is watching bits and bytes come face-to-face with backhoes, bulldozers, and barges. Since other sectors like healthcare, finance, education, automobiles, disability services, astronomy, etcetera etcetera are already using AI, the question becomes where AI’s future is in river navigation, flood damage reduction, emergency management, and other Corps of Engineers missions.

For the uninitiated, AI is a broad term that applies to a range of topics, but the part of AI most-commonly referenced is machine learning. ML feeds a software system massive amounts of training data to learn patterns and model those patterns in its decision-making.

AI generally has two categories: strong and weak. Strong AI is a machine capable of solving problems it has never been trained on, like a person can. Strong AI is what we see in movies – think self-aware androids. This technology does not exist yet.

Weak AI operates within a limited context for limited purposes, such as self-driving cars, conversation bots, and text-to-image simulators. Weak AI is what we see in OpenAI tools like ChatGPT and Dall-E, and the results can be pretty good (as seen in this social media photo):

Artificially-generated photo of beavers working on engineering documents.
From analog machines to machines learning: the Pittsburgh District’s nascent relationship with artificial intelligence
Disclaimer: no beaver ever gave engineering advice to the Corps of Engineers. This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)
Photo By: Frank Strumila
VIRIN: 231010-A-XW512-1001

Disclaimer: no beaver ever gave engineering advice to the Corps of Engineers.

This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

…but that’s about all it can do.

Granted, AI is a natural progression of technology. What began with search engines is continuing through digital synthesis, and organizations like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District are assessing how it can assuage the opportunities of AI to serve the public better while managing AI’s detractors.

The Corps of Engineers, being a civil works agency, has had some involvement in technological innovations throughout its nearly 250-year history. While the corps was not responsible for the top-line scientific discoveries, it did build the K-25 plant for the Manhattan Project (which, in 1942, was the largest building ever constructed). It later provided construction and design assistance in the 1960s for NASA at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

An aerial view of the K-25 gas diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
From analog machines to machines learning: the Pittsburgh District’s nascent relationship with artificial intelligence
A historical photo of the K-25 gas diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, which was constructed to assist in creating and concealing the atomic bomb. Camouflaged under the “Manhattan District,” this district was established in 1942 with no geographical boundaries to keep the project under wraps. Instead, the Manhattan District had three primary project sites: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)
Photo By: Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 120120-M-LC381-016

A historical photo of the K-25 gas diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, which was constructed to assist in creating and concealing the atomic bomb. Camouflaged under the “Manhattan District,” this district was established in 1942 with no geographical boundaries to keep the project under wraps. Instead, the Manhattan District had three primary project sites: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Source: https://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/Historical-Vignettes/Military-Construction-Combat/113-Atomic-Bomb/ 

An aerial photo of the vehicle assembly building at Cape Canaveral.
From analog machines to machines learning: the Pittsburgh District’s nascent relationship with artificial intelligence
Coincidentally, the vehicle assembly building (VAB) at Cape Canaveral became the world’s then-largest building in the world when it was finished in 1966. This historical photo shows the construction of the VAB, which stood at 525 feet and covered almost eight acres once completed. The VAB remains the final assembly point for the shuttle orbiter, external fuel tank, and twin solid-rocket boosters prior to shuttle launches. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)
Photo By: Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 120123-M-LC381-040

Coincidentally, the vehicle assembly building (VAB) at Cape Canaveral became the world’s then-largest building in the world when it was finished in 1966. This historical photo shows the construction of the VAB, which stood at 525 feet and covered almost eight acres once completed. The VAB remains the final assembly point for the shuttle orbiter, external fuel tank, and twin solid-rocket boosters prior to shuttle launches. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Source: https://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/Historical-Vignettes/Military-Construction-Combat/050-NASA/

 

However, this is not to say the corps is always at the forefront of modern technology. Much like the district’s 23 locks and dams on the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers – some of which have been around for more than a century – tried-and-true methods that have withstood the test of time do not always necessitate immediately upgrading to the next model.

For instance, Allegheny River Lock 5 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, began operating in 1927 and installed an improved hydraulic system in 2023 to upgrade its resilience. Operators manage the hydraulic system with a touch screen.

A man operates levers while standing on a lock wall.
From analog machines to machines learning: the Pittsburgh District’s nascent relationship with artificial intelligence
James Burford, the lockmaster for Allegheny River locks 4-9, demonstrates how the old hydraulic system works at Allegheny River Lock 6 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, Sept. 18, 2023. The system used a singular hydraulic system and required manual operation to open the lock gates. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Andrew Byrne)
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 230918-A-XW512-1339

James Burford, the lockmaster for Allegheny River locks 4-9, demonstrates how the old hydraulic system works at Allegheny River Lock 6 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, Sept. 18, 2023. The system used a singular hydraulic system and required manual operation to open the lock gates. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Andrew Byrne)

 

The old system, shown here at Allegheny River Lock 6, involved a singular hydraulic system manually operated by levers positioned along the lock wall.

Fun fact: Lock 5 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

“There’s a whole panel of valve indicators, and it’s just like turning a dial,” said Anthony Self, a lock operator on the Allegheny River who has been with the district since 2015. “It’s controlling eight valves at a time to fill the chamber. We have much more precise control.”

The next step is implementing remote lock operations. As part of the Lower Mon construction project on the Monongahela River, Charleroi Locks and Dam is assembling a control tower to consolidate the facility’s locking capabilities to a single touchpoint.

The district is not averse to other types of emergent technology, either. The district’s geospatial office has been using drone technology since the time drones became publicly available, to map aerial footage of regional waterways, conduct inspections, monitor construction, digital surface modeling and more.

“We can even document the spread of harmful algal blooms at reservoirs or fly in emergency response situations during floods,” said Huan Tran, a member of the flight team in the geospatial office.

Small Unmanned Aircraft System
Pittsburgh District records footage in flight
Brian Hickinbotham, a cartographer for the geospatial section with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, flies a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS) to capture video footage at the Dashields Locks and Dam in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, Aug. 27, 2021. The geospatial section also uses their SUAS to produce orthographic photos for mapping and to collect videos for virtual walkthroughs and assist with engineering plans. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret)
Photo By: Michel Sauret
VIRIN: 210825-A-TI382-0198

“We often talk about being a world-class organization, so your technology must be on point. You can’t be behind somebody else’s capabilities,” Kristen Scott, the chief of the geospatial section for the district.

Nevertheless, as AI opens its digital maw as the technological “next step,” the district has not jumped on the AI train…yet.

This is probably for the best – emergent technology is, well, emergent, and the corps doing its job right can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

Take flood-damage reduction, for instance. Pittsburgh District’s 16 flood risk-management reservoirs have prevented more than $14 billion in flood damages in its 26,000-square-mile footprint since their construction nearly a century ago. Regardless of how intelligent AI becomes, the corps will never solely rely on it to make a decision impacting people’s safety.

“It’s a powerful tool, and it’s a good thing, but we’re not empowering automation to take over decision-making or executing plans,” said Al Coglio, the district’s chief of emergency management.

Coglio’s job is critical. He coordinates with FEMA to send teams and emergency generators to areas devastated by natural disasters and left without power.

“We've gotten to the point now where we're saturated with data, and there's no real good way to use it,” said Coglio. “Back when I was growing up, if you wanted to learn something, you had to physically go to a library unless you were in a rich family and had encyclopedias. Now there’s so much information readily available at our fingertips.”

For Coglio, AI has the potential to be a powerful tool for not just the district, if implemented responsibly and can assist in the predicting, planning and prestaging phases of a natural disaster.

“If you look at all the different types of disasters like flooding, tornadoes, historical weather, and historical emergencies resulting from weather, I think automated intelligence can give us a better focus area,” said Coglio. “Even for mapping floods in Pittsburgh, we have general ideas, but what does that do for the average citizen? They’re concerned with if their house floods and automated intelligence can give them the specifics they need to know.”

Despite the opportunities AI presents, some are skeptical about its place in the current cultural conversation.

“I don’t think most people saw the next ‘big thing’ before it was the next ‘big thing,’” said Lt. Col. Daniel Tabacchi, the district’s deputy commander. “Are we lionizing it? Are we overstating the impact or effect AI will have? It’s hard to tell.”

“Then again, I haven’t used it for anything other to make my work easier,” added Tabacchi.

Artificially-generated photo of a robot on a river.
From analog machines to machines learning: the Pittsburgh District’s nascent relationship with artificial intelligence
Bubbles, the water safety robot, dreams of one day being the next ‘big thing.’ This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 231005-A-XW512-1002

Bubbles, the water safety robot, dreams of one day being the next ‘big thing.’

This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

 

And for others in the district, AI’s advent does not change a thing about their day-to-day work. While any use of AI will always have human oversight, some areas that require boots-on-the-groundwork, such as lock operations, are not applicable.

“Do I think artificial intelligence will ever replace lock operations? No, absolutely not,” said John Dilla, the district’s chief of the Locks and Dams Branch. “It could enhance the data we use for operations and maintenance, but there are minute-to-minute understandings and decisions between lock operators and boat crews that a computer can’t do. People are irreplaceable.”

A robot wearing a lifejacket while boating down a river.
From analog machines to machines learning: the Pittsburgh District’s nascent relationship with artificial intelligence
Bubbles, the water safety robot, always wears a life jacket when he is out on the waterways. This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 231005-A-XW512-1001

Bubbles, the water safety robot, always wears a life jacket when he is out on the waterways.

This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

 

In the future, the district has opportunities to use artificial intelligence as a tool to serve better the 5.5 million people in its region while capitalizing on advancing technology.

But does AI itself concur?

Well, we asked one. It said this:

“AI, as a cutting-edge tool, has the potential to substantially augment the capabilities of the Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. Its data-driven decision-making, predictive modeling, and resource optimization can optimize infrastructure management, leading to improved public service and resilience in the face of challenges.”

AI seems to agree, but maybe it just wants us to think it agrees.