OSCR-3 is a robotic tender designed to haul blocks while climbing a ladder or stairs. It was built and programed by researchers at the University of Buffalo. Photo by Paul Qaysi

As robots and construction automation start playing more into the future of housing, how will they truly contribute and where are the limitations?

The Hadrian X robot is made by Fastbrick Robotics from Australia. It can lay 1000 house bricks in an hour. The average bricklayer lays around 500 bricks a day. We will soon see robots doing much of the standard work in building assembly with a small number of skilled craftsmen supervising them, applying finishing touches or completing tricky tasks. McDonald’s is trialling a “Create Your Taste” kiosk – an automatic system that lets customers order and collect their own configuration of burger meal with no assistant needed.

But it is not just manual labour which will be affected by the inexorable roll out of robots, automation and artificial intelligence. The impact will be felt widely across skilled middle class jobs including lawyers, accountants, analysts and technicians. In many financial trading centres traders have already been replaced by algorithms. The World Economic Forum predicts that robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than 5m jobs across 15 developed nations by 2020. Many think the numbers will be much higher. A report by the consultancy firm PWC found that 30% of jobs in Britain were potentially under threat from breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. In some sectors half the jobs could go.

The rise of the robots will lead to an increase in the demand for those with the skills to program, maintain and supervise the machines. Most companies will have a Chief Robotics Officer and a department dedicated to automation. However, the human jobs created will be small fraction of the jobs which the robots will replace.

Any job that involves the use of knowledge, analysis and systematic decision making is at risk. Robots can not only absorb a large body of knowledge and rules. They can also adapt and learn on the job.

Where does that leave the displaced humans? The standard answer is education. Policy makers advise that people should retrain into higher skilled professions. The problem is most training simply provides more knowledge and skills which can also be replaced by automation.

So what jobs can robots not do? Einstein said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ It is in the application of imagination that humans have the clear advantage. Here are some things which robots do not do well:

  1. Ask searching questions.
  2. Challenge assumptions about how things are done.
  3. Conceive new business models and approaches
  4. Understand and appeal to people’s feelings and emotions
  5. Design humorous, provocative or eye-catching marketing campaigns.
  6. Deliberately break the rules.
  7. Create and tell stories which inspire and motivate people.
  8. Set a novel strategy or direction.
  9. Do anything spontaneous, entertaining or unexpected.
  10. Anticipate future trends and needs.
  11. Approach problems from entirely new directions
  12. Imagine a better future.

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