When Will Robots Build Walls?

Mark L. Johnson / November 2016

A few years ago, two professors in the United Kingdom, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, estimated the probabilities for automation phasing out human jobs. They said that 47 percent of U.S. employment was at risk of losing work to computers and machines.
    
This year, speaking of the world’s 15 largest economies, the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs” report said that artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, robots and more will eliminate an estimated 5.1 million jobs by 2020. The projected losses to automation include 497,000 construction jobs.
    
This won’t just be a change in labor. This is going to be a disruption of it. When? When is “Joe” the construction robot going to appear on site?

You vs. “Joebot”
Frey and Osborne categorized jobs based on their susceptibility to computerization. Using a probability model they developed, they concluded “that construction occupations exhibit high probabilities of computeri[z]ation.”
    
How likely is it that a construction manager’s job could become automated? According to Frey and Osborne, the odds are 7.1 percent that computers will displace people in the construction management function.
    
Are you a first-line supervisor of constriction trades? You’re looking at a 17 percent probability of losing your job to automation.
    
A construction laborer? You have an 88 percent likelihood of losing work to machines.
    
The probability of losing your job to automation depends on where you live, says “Technology at Work v2.0—The Future Is Not What It Used to Be.” For example, 77 percent of jobs in China and 72 percent of jobs in Thailand are at risk of being replaced by automation because these are production-oriented countries. In the United States, 38.4 percent of Boston jobs, a skills-oriented work town, and 53.8 percent of Fresno jobs, a task-oriented job market, are at risk.
    
The main take-away from Technology at Work is that the spread of automation is accelerating.

Machines on Site
Last year, architects and roboticists in Switzerland introduced a robot that lays bricks. Sensors on the robot measure distance and site gradients and give the robot a sense of spatial orientation. The robot, called “In-situ Fabricator,” builds walls tailored to the project.
    
The Swiss National Center of Competence in Research Digital Fabrication laboratory is the creator of In-situ Fabricator. The scientists there are enthralled with building things. “Construction sites are fascinating to roboticists,” Reuters says.
    
So, will Swiss robots be hanging drywall?
    
“One [NCCR] program involves robotic aggregations of materials with unpredictable geometry, in which random pieces of rubble can be measured by [the] robot and structured to fit together to make a complete standing structure,” Reuters reports.
    
It sounds like drywall bots are on the way—and soon.

Aim to Train
Where is this all heading?
    
The book, “The Wealth of Humans: Work and Its Absence in the Twenty-first Century,” argues that secure living in the future calls for workers to develop new skills today.
    
“Aim not for high productivity,” says a review of The Wealth of Humans by The Economist, “but for some extravagantly unproductive niche such as making artisanal cheese.”
    
In other words, growing technological capabilities are marginalizing workers. Most people, including construction workers, will have to learn new crafts. And, while we want younger folks to know that our industry uses nifty, new technologies—to woo them to work for us—some new hires will eventually lose their jobs to Swiss robots.
    
Are you making the connection that I am? Robots will erode entire pay classifications. Some drywallers will have to become machine technicians, working in command stations that monitor robotic production runs. We’re witnessing the biggest retooling of the workforce ever, and it’s happening quickly.
    
Are you ready?

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer. Writers have a 3.8 percent probability of losing their jobs to computers. He tweets at @markjohnsoncomm and connects at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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