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Goodbye Bob The Builder, Hello To Bot

11 October 2016

robot builderSo it’s apparently goodbye to Bob the Builder, and hello to Bot the Builder – or, more properly, Robot the Builder. This is the recent view of the future according to the boss of one of the UK’s construction companies.

Speaking at the annual convention of the Institute of Directors last week, Alison Carnwath, the chairman of Land Securities, the £8.2bn FTSE 100 construction company; was quoted as saying “We’re moving into the era of the robots,” with both a prediction of huge productivity gains and the loss of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of jobs.

Although not necessarily always a figure of great affection, White Van Man or, increasingly, Woman, does have a place in the national psyche and a firm place in the culture. As the old Ford Transit van advert used to go: they are the backbone of Britain. And have long been held as a barometer of how the wider economy has been doing. Generally, if the tradespeople of Britain are happy, then – often – the rest of us aren’t faring too badly either.

Despite Alison also saying “we’re not that far off”, one wonders if the reality of a fully automated site is that near. While robots are well established in manufacturing – from car-making plants to electronic assemblies – they’re don’t seem so sharp out of the factory or laboratory.

Ever seen those supposedly automatic vacuum cleaners for the home? They’re rubbish. As is half the stuff they feature on The Gadget Show (Tomorrow’s World for the under 40s. As an aside, did anything, ever, from Tomorrow’s World see the light of day? Thought not).

One has seen robot arms in controlled environments tackling brick-laying; but, currently, the idea of a robot laying down 500 to 1000 bricks per day in site conditions is just too fantastic; let alone it nipping down to a Eurocell branch for some sealant and three metres of fascia; erecting a conservatory; fitting a kitchen or tiling a roof.

Yet we’re told elsewhere that technology is threatening to make lots, of not most of us redundant. Some – quite serious – economists are already talking about the Universal Wage or Universal Basic Income. This is quite different than the Minimum Wage, or Living Wage, because it is a suggested salary for everyone – regardless – who will find themselves obsolete through technology in the future.

The idea, for the economy, for our society, is quite appalling. Although the construction industry was thought to have shrunk by up to 450,000 jobs during the recession; it still employs – according to the Office for National Statistics – 2.3m people with an average pay packet of £620 per week – more than the UK average of £505. If you extend that to affiliated employments like distribution, logistics, manufacturing and so on; the sector represents up to 9% of GDP and employs approximately 7,000,000 people.

"...the potential for expansion in the construction industry appears to be high."

As it is, the potential for expansion in the construction industry appears to be high, with a widespread shortage of housing pushing house prices up in many parts of the country; and still we can’t get anywhere near enough trades. Obviously, robots of actual, true, real practical assistance would alleviate that shortage – yet in sufficient numbers, and at what cost, in broader terms, to the nation?

And would the nicknames be up to much? In the golden days or Cricklewood, London sites would resound to men with monikers like ‘the Drot Larkin’, ‘Dragline Sweeney’, ‘the Horse Heffernan’, the ‘Elephant Emmet’, his younger brother ‘The Baby Elephant’, ‘Donkey Donovan’ and so on and so forth.

Who’d want to work with Robby, DARYL, Metal Mickey, R2D2, C3PO or Wall-E (although we’ve all worked with a few of those…)?

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