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Kurzweil is a smart bloke. He predicted the internet. He predicted the rise of artificial intelligence and has set a date, 2029, when robots are smarter than us. Not so said the millennial/digital native who served me at a servo (petrol/gasoline station) recently. I tried to pay using a fuel card and the cashier demanded the plastic card’s PIN number. ‘Not required’ was my riposte having used the card hundreds of time previously without any PIN. And so ensued a discussion that increased in heat as the queue of people wanting to use that terminal to pay grew longer. The machine was telling him that a PIN was required. I was adamant that he was wrong. Having a choice between a human with the experience of the situation and artificial intelligence (his terminal) he chose the latter. This guy is already pre-wired for the age of artificial intelligence. No need for a human in the loop for this bloke – he had his full trust in the machine. I of course asked for a supervisor – an old baby boomer response honed from years of call-waiting and jobsworths on the other end of the line. No supervisor was available and frankly he didn’t quite see why one was needed.

Like it or not the digital age is upon us and the rising tide of automation is inexorably taking jobs that were previously regarded as quite skilled and technical out of the workplace once and for all. Banking is a prime example where some quite smart people are being let go because a machine has been shown to be quicker, smarter and yes cheaper. As far back as 2013 Forbes magazine was reporting startling facts on mobile phone ownership. 6 of the world’s 7 billion people have mobile phones – only 4.5 billion have a toilet. The water closet is several centuries old they remind us, while mobile phones have been around for a maximum of say 30 years. The rapid adoption of this technology over a critical public health measure (the loo) tells us a lot about how quickly our lives are going to change as a result of the digital connector in our pocket.  For some, life expectancy will be cut short despite having a device in their pocket that can provide them with the full scale drawings of how to build a flushing toilet – merely because they committed their expenditure to connect widely rather than to evacuate safely.

No industry is immune from the rise of digitisation. The key will be getting ahead of trend and staying there. For many in the Baby Boomer and Gen X demographic it may already be too late to effect the transition from analogue to digital world; from analogue thinking and problem solving to digital mastery of the environment about us. For construction, the paradigm is changing with our very own analogue to digital transition taking place. It’s called BIM standing for building information modelling and will likely be the most transformative thing since the invention of the hammer back in …errr well a long time ago; quite possibly the Bronze Age. BIM has the potential to be an exciting democratisation of the design, build and operation of a structure, or the new technology that leaves behind a forgotten generation whose skills sets could not adapt to a new way of working. BIM even at its most rudimentary is changing construction and reducing the amount of re-work that is necessary. It is encouraging communication across trades and is allowing for, and indeed encouraging, in-situ problem-solving. The amount of waste and re-work alone should reduce build costs and the carbon intensity of our built environment. Being such a large contributor to global warming it is high time that those designing, building and maintaining/operating structures played their part in ameliorating the impact of climate change.


BIM at its farthest reaches is about the integration of modelling, gaming architecture, project management, computer-aided design and virtual technologies like Google Glass and Oculus Rift giving incredible knowledge to the person at the coal-face. Those kids who spent all those hours in their bedroom playing Minecraft or Call of Duty etc are well versed in absorbing data presented in the digital realm and turning this quickly into decision-making. You don’t have to be a weapons expert in Call of Duty you just need to know how to react when a mission critical bit of data appears on your screen. Similarly you may not need to be a qualified tradesman but just need to interpret data when presented to you by a smart operator sitting at a console perhaps a world away.

There’s always the argument that someone has to paint the wall, or sweep the streets but this week comes news that researchers in France and the US have developed new technologies that enable a robot to recover from an injury in under two minutes, similar to how animals do it. This news breaks pretty much at the same time that we find out that at MIT their cheetah robot now sees and jumps over hurdles autonomously as it runs. You can’t tell me that soon it won’t stand on its hind legs and cut-in with a paint brush better than a Block contestant.

The future is bright, or the future is bleak – we don’t know which yet. One thing we can say with some assurance is that the future is digital. If we don’t start thinking now about how we equip humans to master this new paradigm we might find 2029 is here and those much smarter than us robots don’t really need us anymore.