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PropTech Today: Understand real estate robotics and we better understand tech

The last couple of weeks’ articles were penned very much for a specific agent readership, something I am trying to be sure to do most of the time with these pieces. 

This week, however, I have more of a general interest subject I’d like to write about: robots - and not just because it’s fascinating stuff, but because I think it works to highlight an important oversight that many agents are currently making.

Also, for the second week in a row, the largest interest story in my PropTech review (an email I send out every Sunday morning at 10am covering the latest PropTech news - register here if you want it), was a Robotics story, grabbing by far the most click-throughs and subsequent social media shares. 

Reading these robot stories got me thinking - I believe that once we understand the reality of robotics innovation and the role it is destined to play in property, we are able to better appreciate the role of technology as a whole. 

To be exact, we can better understand technology’s power to aid human endeavour rather than replace it. 

Autonomous plasterboarding

Let’s start by acknowledging that there are indeed factions of robotics innovation which aim to replace human beings. 

This Japanese plasterboarding robot looks absolutely terrifying, like Robocop’s arch nemesis, but the feat of engineering that enables it to do what it does is phenomenal. You can see it in action at the bottom of the piece.

A robot that can put up plasterboard has obvious and direct links to property, more specifically construction and renovation. Far more important, though, is the technology behind its ability to bend, and walk, and identify, pick up and operate tools in order to complete a complex and precise task. This innovative breakthrough is paving the way for future robotic possibilities. 

Imagine, if you will, when we reach a point where a similar looking beast of a machine is able to prepare properties for open houses, taking care of everything from perfecting the lighting and plumping sofa cushions, to vacuuming the floors and emitting the luxurious odours of home baking. 

You might think I’m being ridiculous and that’s kind of my point. Autonomous robots are real, but their application in the real world, not least property, is limited. Far more limited than robots which work on a premise of augmentation over automation.

Before I move on, here’s another remarkable bot, the one I featured in the Sunday Review. 

Look at it, leaping and bounding like a burglar outrunning the police. Just imagine, RoboAgent has just nailed another viewing, charming the clients and selling the hell out of a prime piece of real estate.

But wait! 

There’s another viewing booked across town in ten minutes! No problem for RoboAgent - it just runs, jumps, and springs along the building tops from Mile End to Kensington in 7 minutes flat.

Augmentation over autonomy

The two examples above showcase current advancements in autonomous robotics - those which operate without the need for human input of interaction once the task has been set in motion.

The next example of robotics, however, concerns augmentation over autonomy. That is to say, they are innovations which see robotic technology integrate with the human form to create brand new paradigms of knowledge and physical ability. 

A robotic exoskeleton enables a human to have far greater strength and stamina than would ever normally be possible. It is worn like flexible scaffolding around the legs and torso (sometimes the arms, too) and then works to support and improve the movement and power of the human body. 

This example, built by LG for application in warehouses, brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘wearable technology’.

“A comfortable fit and naturally rotating joints allow the CLOi SuitBot to move in a more relaxed and natural way to enhance the lower body while walking, standing, or working. For the worker, the technology will improve productivity, monitor performance, and prevent injuries.” says LG’s CTO Dr. I.P. Park.

I want to share this story with you because I think it does a good job of showcasing the side of robotics that can’t be accused of planning to take over the world, killing off the human race and then cavorting around the globe in some kind of never-ending, mechanical Great Gatsby party.

As such, it works to showcase, more broadly, the fact that technology as a whole is only dystopian if you choose to look at it that way. 

If you look at it all with reason, instead of seeing that terrifying autonomous plasterboarder smashing nails into the wall, you’ll see this exoskeleton, in the absence of a human, curled up in a cardboard box as useless as unworn trousers. 

Autonomy is always in the headlines but rarely for any other reason than it makes a good story. The reality is that augmentation is a much greater force, enabling us to do things that we would never have been able to do before. 

Illustrating wider technological misunderstanding

The key point I want to ram home is that the vast majority of robots are going to work with us, rather than in place of us and that this rule also applies to technology as a whole. 

All of this talk that agents are going to be replaced by autonomous services, online algorithms, and artificial intelligence is, to borrow some American slang, total baloney. 
We see it, for example, in the teeny-tiny market share that online agents continue to have in the UK. Despite all of the noise and panic around online agents, figures show that they still only boast around 6.8% market share.

While the number of online sales may slightly rise as high street numbers slightly decrease, the disparity in overall share remains profound. This is because, especially in regional Britain, people continue to prefer the comfort of a local agent.

Those high street agents who are currently losing out to online alternatives are, by and large, the same who continue to moan about technological disruption rather than looking for ways in which they can use it to regain and maintain their competitive advantage. Their overpowering fear of autonomous technology is causing them to ignore the gift of augmentation. 

It’s the equivalent of Homebase, for example, being so wary of mega-online DIY retailers who work on a scale big enough to justify setting up robot-operated warehouses that they fail to make use of the exoskeleton which could help them and their human warehouse workers to improve their speed and efficiency and therefore remain competitive and relevant in an increasingly automated world. 

The high street agent who blames technological competition for the demise of their business is almost certainly destined to fail because they refuse to make use of the vast array of technology being offered to help them stay competitive. 

They can’t see the wood for the trees…

P.S

Here’s a slightly off-topic thought for you to take into your day:

Stephen Hawking passed away in March of this year. He left behind some of his unpublished writings which have now been made into a new book, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions”.  

One of his big concerns in this book (which in fact is mirrored in the latest book by Yuval Noah about the 21 Lessons for the 21st Century) is genetically modified “superhumans”. 

These modifications, really only made possible by the current super rich, will make people super intelligent and thus create a second, more superior race - an elite force which we humans have little ability to contain. 

Now imagine a genetically modified superhuman estate agent - dear god. Would the ego increase in size, too? Maybe.

I believe that any such increase in mental capability would play out differently depending on whether they were a superhuman high street agent or a superhuman Onbrid agent. 

One half would realise that their days in this profession are numbered, and the other half would realise their business model remains flawed but can easily be fixed.

Any guesses which half is which?

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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