Are Everyday Robots Smart?

Review: CASS Real Estate Club annual conference, Technology panel (1st June 2017)

I’m not a fan of Damon Albarn, sorry Damon, however his 2014 song Everyday Robots is the exception and a work of genius. It attempts to describe human connections reduced to the thumb on an iPhone or similar device. Indeed, despite my dislike of Albarn, I would go as far as to say that the lyrics in his Everyday Robots are pure poetry.

The technology evangelists at the recent CASS Real Estate Club conference went one step further. Soon you will arrive home after an argument on the phone to the wife to find the pictures of her on the wall have morphed into Montgomery, the family dog. To be fair agreement among panelists wasn’t universal and were quick to make the distinction between the morality of intelligent over empathetic systems. But in the end what is the difference? All decisions, whether made by humans or robots create systems. Some systems endure, some quickly fall away. Apart from the radicals among us, we empathise and one way or another we fall in line.

To make a decision you must be Smart. That was the view of Stewart Bailey, Managing Director at Virtual Viewing, a building information specialist. Alex Edds, Director of Innovation at JLL, moderating asked all the other panelists the same question. What is Smart? i.e. Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology in the context of buildings and cities.

For Josh Artus, Director of Built Environment Strategy & Co-Founder at The Centric Labs, Smart was about “Enhancing the human experience”. I like this answer a lot, that is definitely what I would like any system to do, but it doesn’t tell me what Smart is. I can enhance my human experience by smiling at a stranger or leaning back in my favourite chair at the end of a hard day.

Benjamin Kott, Founder and CEO at EnergyDeck a building optimisation platform was clear on what Smart is all about: “Connectivity and Insights”. This is a deceptively intuitive answer and appeals to me as an analyst. Nonetheless, we far from completely understand how our own bodies work let alone fully understand the ecosystems around the world that we have been intent on improving. And now we want to wire everything up just to see what happens.

Hannu Rantanen CEO of Assetti a collaboration and data sharing platform was more interested in a core construct of Smart. Rantanen said “It’s all about the data”. Smart is the ability to respond to information, Smart allows you to share information that others in your network can respond to. Given the flow of data Smart decides how to respond to your colleagues. Smart can respond on its own.

And if robots continue to respond on their own, in who’s interest do they serve? As a reasonably Smart human with a Real Estate Financial Modelling company I felt compelled to promote my own interests. I asked the question of the panel, the prognosis I had been hearing frequently over my 20 year career and twice on different panels on this one conference: Are spreadsheets finally dead?

The response to this very direct question was surprising. The two panelists who answered both said that spreadsheets remained their biggest competitor and that it will continue to be for some time. In each case they didn’t explain how the spreadsheet manifested itself as a competitor. If they had I might have understood better the service that each company offered. However one panellist did mention that his company had designed a spreadsheet output for clients who preferred this format.

I have my own view, and this is it: The reason spreadsheets are so ubiquitous is that they allow humans to program without losing a tangible connection with the underlying data. Spreadsheets provide analysts with the speed and processing ability that makes them feel powerful. Its a bit like me stepping on a travelator at the airport and imagining I have just taken a Pac-Man power up pill. I’m still walking. I understand and fully sense that, but now I am just doing it a whole lot better.

Spreadsheets allow analysts to prove their hunch more quickly. The important thing is that it also helps them understand how they got there. The danger I foresee with a lot of Smart technology is that it attempts to glibly export this process to a system that we’re not part of creating as individuals in our own Smart way. In a nutshell Smart systems could, if we’re not careful, deskill people. Argus valuation software, a program still far from the current potential offered by Smart technology, can process large volumes of similar data and perform a supplementary function very well. However sustained and exclusive use of this black box is a drug that might mean you eventually lose your job because you are unable to calibrate a machine that you had no part in creating. And as for empathetic Smart technology, it may even deskill you in your ability to resolve issues with your wife.

My response to the panelists is to stop seeing spreadsheets as a competitor but as an enabler of Smart technology. It is a format that people understand. It is a format that gives Smart humans some sense of control. It is a medium through which Smart humans can express their creativity, democritising the appreciation and creation of the systems within which they participate.

But fair play to the moderator and panelists. What is Smart is a hard question to ask as well as answer. Are we just asking what we mean by the exciting technology we currently hold in our hands? Are we asking when does a robot become a human or are we dodging the question that has bugged us for as long as we can determine i.e. do we really possess free will, are we already robots? Can the question be boiled down to facility and economics? We are still waiting patiently for trickle down economics to fully correct the export of poverty to the third world and yet we wish to export our thinking to machines. And as for the increased insights, do we really care about the question we didn’t think to ask?

Edds final question to the panel “can you quantify the human experience?” Rantanen answered with the deliciously clever insight of a Smart human “Can you quantify poetry?” Indeed. Would a robot be able to tell you why I really don’t like Damon Albarn? Spotify doesn’t care but my closest friends understand.

Natalie Bayfield, Chairwoman of Bayfield Training

You are better than a robot! Stay ahead of the curve and Join our Real Estate Financial Modelling School in London on the 21st to the 25th August.

The technology panel was held on the 1st June 2017 as part of the Cass Real Estate Club Conference: Making Real Estate Great again. The event was organised by current Cass Masters students: Virag Kovacs, Aline de Beer, Maxim Kuznetsov, Sandro Paul and Kilian Kleine. The event was sponsored by GLL Real Estate Partners, Drooms, Europa Capital and Property Investor Europe.

June 6th, 2017|