Many contradictory predictions are being made about the impact of artificial intelligence in the workplace. Chris Hoar investigates some of the threats and opportunities for professionals.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science dedicated to the study of software that can reason, make intelligent decisions and solve problems. We can find it in common devices such as smartphones, and in machines that undertake a defined set of routines in controlled environments such as car assembly plants.
AI enables us to locate the most obscure information in a few moments, or scan emails and other files to extract appointment or contact details to add to calendars and address books. It can be found, too, in a cluster of mainstream technologies that are having an increasing impact on our lives: self-driving cars, healthcare diagnostics and targeted treatment, and physical assistance for the elderly. AI has also allowed the virtual world of video games to grow from basic graphics into an industry larger than the movies.
Another strand is machine learning, which has made speech recognition a reality on our phones and other devices in the form of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. Moreover, its algorithms can be used in other applications that rely on pattern recognition. Natural language processing together with knowledge bases and a reasoning capability have dramatically improved web searches.
AI and society
AI is expected to disrupt employment significantly, in particular law enforcement and healthcare. This prospect has already prompted concern among politicians and regulators, as well as the public, about how technology companies should respond: action is needed now, given the evasiveness of certain companies on matters of regulation and compliance.
Another major question for governments is how AI could affect communities and lifestyles. In the past, displaced workers could retrain for new jobs, but this time there might be too few jobs to go around, or none. This would create a burden for welfare systems that must either pay people not to work or find something else for them to do. Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Germany are discussing how to deal with the situation when rather than if it happens, but the UK’s position remains unclear.
The business world
It is said that new technology creates more jobs than it displaces. For example, although banking staff have been replaced with ATMs, we still find staff in our branch to help us. Those of us old enough to remember the typing pool and wages office will appreciate what technology has done to the office landscape – yet we still have offices, and more of them than ever.
But what cannot be ignored is the erosion of work that was once the preserve of professionals and trained managers. For instance, legal and accountancy firms are using increasing levels of technology to deal with routine tasks and work previously undertaken by juniors. Credit checking, document analysis and searches could sometimes have taken hours to complete, even with IT support; AI can in contrast analyse more documents in a fraction of the time, and does not suffer from fatigue, stress or boredom.
AI and the built environment
Advances in automation, particularly those resulting from developments in AI, machine learning and the Internet of Things – the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution – will be seen throughout the property sector. Technology is already affecting how cities are managed, how they develop and the kinds of talent and organisations they attract. Smart solutions to infrastructure challenges will help to differentiate cities, while intelligent machines will match or outperform humans across a range of facilities management and estate-related activities, including those that require cognitive capabilities.
AI is spurring the development of smart, efficient buildings, from design through construction and commissioning to operation and use. These buildings offer real-time control over the internal environment, according to various climatic and occupant factors. Smart buildings can add value by improving comfort through adjustments to personal preferences, and thus have a direct, positive impact on individual productivity and wellbeing.
Another emerging theme is how driverless vehicles will affect real-estate development. Providing sufficient parking for tenants in residential or commercial projects is paramount – a high parking ratio remains a major selling point for tenants leasing office space. Accommodating driverless vehicles will be the next step. Then there is the effect that many younger workers in the gig economy are having on property. As this demographic prefers urban areas, cities will have to be smart, connected and offer the most up-to-date technology, making property pivotal in attracting the best people.
On the corporate front, demand for digital talent will influence location strategies. Highly serviced hubs will replace office space to support mobile knowledge workers when they need to interact physically with their colleagues and managers. The fundamental nature of work as a location-dependent activity has already begun to change, and technology will simply accelerate the pace of this. Many factors will alter how we think about commercial property, perhaps most notably the move from asset provision to service provision.
But the widespread adoption of AI also brings many concerns, not least the potential to compromise sensitive infrastructure. Since it has proven possible to hack military systems, how difficult is it going to be to reprogram a one-tonne security robot or a surveillance drone? AI depends heavily on big data, so how secure are the systems that support it?
The ability to reset software in driverless vehicles or factory automation may also force industry and governments to think again about the desirability of embedding AI on an uncontrolled basis. As technocrats and big business push harder to make AI ubiquitous, the threats from malicious acts and, even terrorism, could be taken to a new level.
All services, including those that are the preserve of established professions, will be affected by AI to some extent. This will bring fundamental changes in the way that specialist expertise is available to society. The extent of the impact will, however, depend on the service and the timescale over which it is likely to occur.
Our ability to learn from previous engagements and projects means that the performance of the delivery and operations teams is going to be improved by a combination of AI and big data. Performance measurement of the delivery process, including benchmarking, and of the delivery team is generally not well developed. The degree of objectivity claimed is often open to question. AI removes this subjectivity and can present whatever can be deduced from the facts. It is then for the human decision-maker to determine what action is necessary.
There are also many implied threats and opportunities to existing professional and managerial grades. It is hard to see what those displaced by intelligent machines might do. Yet there might be opportunities for others – premature retirees might return to more traditional ways of life, leading to a modest upturn in cottage- and craft-based industries. While this might not be everyone’s preferred vision, it could be an option.
There are mixed messages coming from the deployment of ever-more intelligent devices. Scientists and the media are likely to continue to offer contradictory advice on what AI will mean for us all and when.
This technology is bigger than anything that has come before, apart from the First Industrial Revolution. All organisations should therefore look at what they do now and what they want to do in the future, and then assess their position against developments in AI and other advanced technology.
This must be done with the engagement of key stakeholders – that is, all of us.
Chris Hoar is Co founder of Artificial Intelligence in Facilities Management and lead author of the RICS insight paper: Artificial intelligence: What it means for the built environment.
This article first appeared in RICS Land Journal (April/May 2018)
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