Anyone who saw the excellent 2015 film Ex Machina will remember the ending. It’s horrifying. A kind, young programmer becomes infatuated with a beautiful humanoid robot (spoiler alert) who leaves him to die alone in a locked room. In one of the final scenes, the programmer stands there shocked and screaming behind a glass door, while the robot calmly leaves to begin her new life.
The film embodies our collective attitudes toward artificial intelligence: attraction, fear, suspicion, hope, and wonderment.
All of that—especially wonderment—is front and center as I think about what robots will mean for the construction industry in the coming decades. Machines can now lay 1,000 bricks per hour, versus the human average of 1,000 per day. 3-D printers can conjure up whole buildings, and any worker who’s still needed can slip on an exoskeleton to greatly increase his or her strength.
“The construction site of 2050 will be human-free,” predicts a report from infrastructure giant Balfour Beatty. “The role of the human overseer will be to remotely manage [projects.]”
So how will all of that affect remodeling? One could argue: not much, or not for a long time anyway. For starters, renovation projects are generally smaller than new builds, and it’s hard to imagine a kitchen and bath company spending a ton of money on a machine that won’t pay for itself by adding profit. Also, each remodeling project is unique, making it more difficult to incorporate robots whose very genius lies in their ability to replicate the exact same task across multiple builds.
"The construction site of 2050 will be human-free."
Those arguments make sense, but ultimately I disagree with them. I think about CNC machines, which have greatly affected remodeling, even though most contractors don’t own one. For example, in past years, a homeowner was shown a few design options, say for a cabinet door. They made their selection and that was it. Today, as a result of digital technology, there are hundreds of selections across thousands of products, and the sheer number of choices paralyze homeowners and frustrate remodelers. Too much choice is a problem that’s an unintended consequence of technology.
As the construction industry transitions to a more automated jobsite, there will be unforeseen outcomes for remodelers as well. Some of them will be magical. Some will be mysterious. Others will be challenging. The thing is, you can’t throw a rock that size into a still pond without a lot of ripples reaching the shore.
The best we can do over the next few years is to stay sharp enough to recognize those ripples when they come and nimble enough to adapt to the changing waters.