Much has been written and discussed in recent years about just how automated the home building process can ever become. But technology’s forward march may actually have a far greater—and potentially more deleterious—impact on the ability of people to afford a house, however it gets built.
That is one of the scarier conclusions that Andrew McAfee—principal research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management’s Center for Digital Business—arrived at on Monday during his provocative keynote address at Builder’s Housing Leadership Summit in Arizona, which runs through Wednesday.
McAfee readily admitted that he doesn’t know much about home building, per se. Nevertheless, he confidently predicted that over the next generation, “the way houses get built is going to change pretty dramatically” because of technology.
He bases his opinion on some key technological advances over the past few years that, in his estimation, proved that computerized machines are capable of activities that scientists and engineers had previously thought to be the sole province of humans. McAfee was particularly impressed with the driverless car that Google has developed, and a press release that Apple wrote using an algorithm, as examples of how human activities “are being outstripped by technology.”
McAfee also noted, with evident glee, how computers have bested humans in intellectual contests, the two most prominent being chess master Garry Kasparov’s defeats in 1996 and 1997 at the hands of a computer called Deep Blue (which Kasparov disparagingly called “a $10 million alarm clock,” said McAfee); and the much publicized victory in 2011 by a $100 million computer system called Watson on the game show Jeopardy over that show’s two most successful human champions.
Artificial intelligence is now merging with robotics—“which has been a bad joke for a long, long time,” he conceded—to where “trainable” machines can handle rudimentary human tasks, like folding clothes. And computers have been able to predict, with startling accuracy, everything from the quality of red wine vintages to political elections.
Whether computerized machines eventually become jobsite tools for building houses remains to be seen. But as machines in general take over more human activities, “there’s a change coming in how smart companies do their work,” observed McAfee, and how these companies incorporate data into their decision making.
While McAfee called himself an optimist, his presentation included the dark side of this technological disruption, namely that it has been putting more workers out of jobs. He traced that evolution to the early 1980s, when Time magazine named the computer its “Machine of the Year.” Since that time, median household income and job creation levels have been declining. The share of total GNP paid out in wages has taken a nosedive, while corporate profits are now at all-time highs.
McAfee thought these events were more than just coincidences. “The 2000s was the only decade where fewer people were working at the end of the decade than at the beginning. And technology is driving a great decoupling of many of the country’s economic factors.”
The logical conclusion of the trends would be that fewer people would be able to afford to buy a house if, as McAfee predicted, this decoupling of work from output leads to a more extreme polarization of income and wealth, and a “hollowed out” middle class. Then, he asked ruefully, “what are the smart companies’ moves, and the right [economic] policies?” McAfee, the author of “Race Against the Machine,” did not provide answers to these questions. But he suggested that more people, including builders, need to start thinking about them more seriously.
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ.