"I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that..." - by Bob Thompson & Andrew Waller

We’ve moved on. Last year, our discussions with property people about artificial intelligence (AI) often led to comments about unlocking a future dominated by Terminator robots. Peoples’ (entirely rational) fears are summed up by the quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey, when HAL, the ship’s computer tries to kill the crew.

Remit Christmas gifts were Amazon Echos – the device that houses Alexa, Amazon’s AI assistant. James Dearsley, proptech guru, was an early adopter of Alexa, but his wife is not a fan. The day she “met” Alexa, she said sharply “Turn her off!” An insight into how we will view our AI assistants? More worryingly, our team has reported that Amazon has recommended purchases on their next visit to the website, coincidentally similar to items discussed in the same room as Alexa.

Is this acceptable?

Well, AI is set to become a bigger part of all of our lives. Marketing thought leader Seth Godin recently wrote a list of 23 things that a computer can now do better than a human., Amongst these tasks are “Pick a face out of the crowd”, and “figure out the P&L of a large company”. Watson, the IBM supercomputer is currently prescribing drugs more accurately than a human GP and PwC has launched a bot which dispenses advice. Professional services are not safe.

You may say, “ah, but a computer can’t [insert task here]” – that’s missing the point. AI will be adopted despite our fears because it makes our lives easier, and is cheaper than getting someone to do it for us. Moreover, one reason they will be adopted is that they CAN’T currently do the whole job – they pose no immediate threat.

A thought experiment – a number of web sources give an example of a stadium being filled with water exponentially – 1 drop, then 2 drops after a minute, 4 drops a minute later and 8 drops a minute after that… and so on. The stadium is full after only 49 minutes. The point is that after 45 minutes, the stadium is only 7% full. The majority of the flood occurs in the last 4 minutes.

There is good reason to suppose that the rise of the machines will also appear suddenly. We are still some way off, but the future is clear – we will be working side by side with our creations in most of our current jobs – and just as in previous industrial revolutions, many jobs will be “lost”.

We have recently been discussing future roles in the property industry and our paper on this will shortly be published by the RICS – there are good reasons for optimism but the potential for change is real. Early adopters will adapt and benefit from the changes – others may not retain any choice.

Perhaps our real fear may be that we won’t be able to do the things we were trained to do in the last century - I’m sorry Dave; I’m afraid you can’t do that.