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News & opinion

7 APR 2020

How developing our human skills can lead to AI enhancing surveying

Not a day seems to pass without reading that automation and artificial intelligence will replace humans in the workplace. For instance, a page on the BBC News asks ‘Will a robot take your job?’, and if you type in ‘chartered surveyor’ it will tell you that it is fairly likely at 63 per cent.

Meanwhile, the RICS report The Impact of Emerging Technologies on the Surveying Profession, published by Remit Consulting in July 2017, says 88 per cent of a chartered surveyor’s responsibilities will be automated in the next ten years.

So is it time to be alarmed? Perhaps not. The fear of machines taking jobs is nothing new, and similar predictions have been made in previous centuries.

In February 1928, under the heading ‘March of the Machines makes idle hands’, the New York Times described construction as ‘a machine industry instead of a collection of hand trades’, adding that ‘in concrete construction, building materials are mixed like dough in a machine and literally poured into place without the touch of a human hand’. Today we take the cement mixer for granted, but its introduction at the time had a massive impact.

On the other hand, a Deloitte study of data for England and Wales going back to 1871 concludes that, rather than destroying jobs, technology has been a ‘great job-creating machine’, and that ‘machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the past 150 years’. The Office for National Statistics also estimate the UK employment rate at 76.1 per cent as of September – the joint-highest on record since comparable records began in 1971.

So is it time to relax? Perhaps not. The Fourth Industrial Revolution we are now experiencing differs significantly from the three that preceded it. New technology is affecting a wider range of professions, economies and human work than ever before – it can understand, speak, hear, write, answer and predict, and is gaining new skills at an unprecedented pace.

Change will affect the role of the surveyor more than at any point in history. As a chartered surveyor who has held a range of roles including that of client receiving survey data, an operational surveying gathering the data myself or more recently heading up a proptech company helping surveyors collect, report and analyse data, I see some amazing work taking place, but also areas where traditional surveying remains dominant.

RICS’ Future of the profession consultation response report, published in January 2019, also confidently viewed the challenges we face as surveyors presenting immense opportunity. But it acknowledges that we need the right skill sets and business models to maximise these.

One important area that sometimes gets lost in the debate is ensuring that we build on our human skills, the things that set us apart from the machines. There is no point trying to take them on head to head at what they do - we will lose. We need instead to ensure that we focus where they cannot compete. Human skills are key for a surveyor – creativity, curiosity, collaboration, compassion, critical thinking, design, imagination, inspiration, empathy and leadership. These skills will be more important than ever.

There is no point trying to take on machines head to head – we will lose. We need instead to focus where they cannot compete

 

I don’t see the future, as some do, being surveyor versus machine; I think it will be more like surveyor plus machine, with technology allowing professionals to build on their knowledge, experience and reflection to augment their outputs.

Although the surveyor that we know may soon be a thing of the past, the technology at our disposal ideally places us to ensure the surveyor of the future can remain agile and respond to, and exceed, client demands.