Will Artificial Intelligence eliminate Real Estate jobs? Part 1...

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Vicky Pollard from the comedy classic Little Britain was famous for saying, very fast,“Yeah, but, no, but, yeah, but, no, but…”, and that is exactly the answer to the question of whether AI will eliminate real estate jobs. AI is unlikely to eliminate many entire jobs, but it is highly likely to eliminate a whole raft of ‘jobs to be done’ from the day to day lives of us humans.

In early 2017 McKinsey wrote this: “Overall, we estimate that 49 percent of the activities that people are paid to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology.” And in July 17, in a report, published by the RICS no less, it was stated that ‘The Impact of Emerging Technologies on the Surveying Profession’, the RICS “Surveying appears to be an industry in which 88% of the core tasks are ripe for automation to a greater or lesser degree.”

What is going on?

Artificial Intelligence may have been first discussed way back in 1956 but it is only in the last few years that it has really morphed from the world of science fiction to become a mainstream technology. A confluence of improved algorithms, the recent availability of vast datasets and exponential increases in computing power have seen to that. Computer Vision (the ability of a camera to understand what it is looking at) and Voice Recognition have both gone from useless to utility in a matter of years. For example, the best voice recognition system had a ‘word/error’ rate of 23% in 2013; today that is less than 5%, which is superior to humans. In just three years, from 2013 - 2016, the speed neural networks could be trained (critical to AI) increased by 60 times.

In 2016 Google’s Deepmind program AlphaGo beat the world champion GO player Lee Sedol. In 2017 the next iteration AlphaGo Zero beat the original 100-0, after just 3 days practice. It then beat Stockfish, the No1 Chess playing software, after only 4 hours practice.

Be under no illusion, as Sundar Pichai CEO of Google has said, we have now moved to an AI first world. And this matters hugely to the everyone in Real Estate. In our industry what really matters, above all else, is what our customers want and need to do within the spaces and places we create. Everyone has a ‘job to be done’ and it is that that AI is fundamentally changing. The bottom line is that anything ‘Structured, Repeatable or Predictable’ will be automated. Not might be, will be. The incentive to do so is too great to be ignored: regardless of whether that suits us as individuals. This is the 49% of activities that McKinsey refer to, and the 88% from the RICS report. The only difference is that McKinsey are referring to today whereas the RICS is taking a 10 year view.

So, if anything ‘Structured, Repeatable or Predictable’ is going to be automated, what does that mean for us? What are we going to do? The answer lies in what I like to think of as ‘New Work’ and that is anything that involves design, imagination, inspiration, creation, empathising, intuition, innovation, collaboration and social intelligence. These are the foundational human skills that, luckily for us, are the antithesis of what computers are good out.

The key to avoid your job being eliminated by AI is how good you are at marrying your intrinsic human skills with the extraordinary processing power of the machines we now have at our disposal. Ex world champion chess player Gary Kasparov started an alternative chess format called Advanced Chess, where one or two humans, assisted by a chess computer, play a similar team. What he discovered running various tournaments vindicated his hypothesis that a human paired with a computer would beat a computer on its own. But what he also found was more telling: a “weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkable, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”. Ultimately it was the skill of the human who could best understand how to marry human + computer that came out top. It is the creativity in defining the ‘process of augmentation’ that really matters.

Steve Jobs was famously not a techie; he studied calligraphy at college. So it is perhaps not surprising that he understood this need for humans and computers to work alongside each other. At the launch of the iPad 2 in 2011 he said this: “It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

These parallel memes, that technology is developing at a phenomenal pace and will enable widespread automation, and that humans need to become skilled at augmenting themselves with complimentary technical skills, are the key to answering the question of whether AI will eliminate CRE jobs. How to do this will be the subject of part 2 of this post.

Antony