They’re Back

FUTURES RAMBLING #107 By Laurie Aznavoorian

There is a lot of talk these days about robots changing our lives and taking over jobs, but what really happens when a robot comes to your workplace, how does it impact work?

The Universal Robotics 10 industrial robotic arm in the BVN studio

They first appeared in the office at the end of 2017 a month or two before Christmas, young and nimble, they worked like troopers too, late into the night, making the rest of us appear particularly slothful. They have minds like steel traps, I’ve never once seen them cross the studio to get something only to get there and forget what it was they were after.

Naturally the company loves them, suckers for shiny new things. It doesn’t hurt that they’re not incessant bellyachers like the rest of us whining about: how cold it is, how hot it is, the guys in health care using speaker phones in the office, the broken zip tap – wah wah. Nor do they have a vehement belief that it’s sacrilege for lollies to be distributed at 4:02 rather than 4:00 on Thursdays. 

No one complained when they silently slithered away in the same stealth fashion they arrived. Sure, we reminisced, but the studio returned to the way it was. They’re back now, younger and prettier than ever, twisting and turning, not bothering to appropriately cover their long limbs. When they move, nothing in their body continues to move once they stop. (think about that next time you exercise).

Just like before they’re super clever, artistic and amazingly efficient. Morale in the studio is plummeting, the rest of us feel like old turds floating in a punch bowl.

What, you think I’m talking about the new graduates? Ha ha, Well yes, but no.

I’m talking about the KUKA KR 10 and Universal Robotics 10. They’re the robots we’ve had in our office at various stages over the past year. Truth be told, when they first arrived plenty of naysayers queried what they were doing, snarky comments surfaced about their contribution to the practice. The catalyst of the discontent was of course fear: that the interlopers would drink our coffee, eat our lollies and take our jobs.

But one person wasn’t afraid, Chris Bickerton. He knew exactly what they were doing because he is BVN’s primary liaison and keeper of robots. Once a typical computational designer obsessed with parking garage entries and curtain walls, he heeded the advice of the country song and took his job and shoved it jumping from a traditional role within an architectural practice to chart a new course involving robotics. Chris is never coming back. He’s hooked like a hillbilly on OxyContin.

There is a lot of talk these days about robots changing our lives and taking over jobs, but what really happens when a robot comes to your workplace, how does it impact work? I can think of no better person to ask than Chris. But before we delve too far, you should know Chris is a real person with a real job, but for the purpose of this article he’s a personification of a broader group of talented people at BVN who have championed the introduction of robotics and other new technology.

You might ask why we chose to get into bed with robots, particularly when we didn’t know what they would do or how they might contribute? The answer is simple, robots are a technology that will significantly disrupt the building industry.

Welcoming them into our studio forces us to think about that disruption and puts us on the front foot. In the past 12 months we’ve learned plenty, their presence has changed our collective thinking and the way we design.

One example is our own studio. We assumed the overhead booms that distribute power to our mobile desks would have to be made by a steel fabricator, which is what we did for the majority of them. But we also took a punt and got the KUKA KR 10 to make five unique booms. Day and night KUKA wove carbon fibre around a 3D printed circular frame. The result was beautifully hand-crafted (albeit robotic hand) circular trusses that parallel their steel sister’s functionality.  

The kicker is the beautiful booms cost the same, they’re fun to talk about and unlike the steel versions, they arrived on time. What did we learn? Working alongside a robot opens the door for bespoke, handmade elements in space – the things architects and designers abandoned long ago due to cost. Full disclosure – the robots cost money and ours were on loan from Sydney University and the University of Technology in Sydney, if we had to pay for them it would be a different story.

Woven carbon fibre on a 3D printed frame

Additional disclosure, several technicians from the university observed KUKA KR 10 with clipboards and controllers issuing instructions. Chris stood on a ladder wearing a lab coat and goggles for weeks wrapping carbon fibre around plastic hooks because the robot didn’t have the dexterity for such nuanced tasks. Over time the robot learned enough to do a ‘nudie run’ and wove solo, but Chris still had to tell it what to do.

Robots build cars, drive them and write articles. They can deliver individually tailored learning, but they’re not going to show you how to load filament around a 3D printing spool because to be honest, they’re not very good at it. Consequently, we have found ourselves typical of organisations that embrace new technology, internal learning is an imperative. Now part of Chris’ job is teaching old dogs new tricks.

The story highlights how interaction with robots causes each of us to play to our strengths. Jobs won’t disappear but continue a trajectory that started decades ago when work evolved from being about hands (manual labour) to heads (cognitive tasks) and in the future to hearts. Heart tasks call on human skills that are interpersonal, creative, thought based and cognitive. You can’t mechanise that.

Observing Chris in the office he appears to be doing a lot of what he did before KUKA KR 10 arrived: most days he’s here – although sometimes he works from home. The lab coat has been abandoned for a return to the architect’s uniform: black tee shirt and jeans. He still sits in front of a computer, but looks can be deceiving, his days are quite different and anything but routine.

This tracks with what’s happening whether robots are in the picture or not. According to Deloitte non-routine jobs that require cognitive abilities have been the single largest source of employment in Australia. By 2030, one quarter of Australia’s workforce will be professionals, driven by a continued shift towards non-routine, cognitive-based jobs. And who’s going to do the routine stuff you ask? KUKA KR 10 and UR 10.

But who tells the machines what to do? That would be people like Chris Bickerton. The robots aren’t dumb, in fact over the course of the time KUKA was in our office it learned enough to be trusted on a ‘nudie run’, the equivalent of crossing the road alone. KUKA wove carbon fibre like a big boy, but someone looked both ways first and told it what to do and where to do it. 

Chris along with others are facilitators of circumstances that allow individuals within the practice to interact with new technologies that include: robots, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud and quantum computing, drones, virtual and augmented reality and 3D/4D printing, we don’t have all of these yet, but someday we might.

Each has the potential to challenge our standards, risk profiles and the limits of our intellectual property; consequently, another aspect of this reinvented role is policing their application.

As professionals we naturally question what it all means. What are the consequences of a robot creating a plausible sketch, which is what UR 10 did in our office. Who owns the sketch, who’s responsible if it’s wrong, what happens when someone 3D prints something that falls apart and hurts someone?

Chris and others are acutely aware of our lack of knowledge in areas of contract law, intellectual property and how to assemble equitable working partnerships. None of these are standard in an architecture curriculum.  We will need to know how to deal with added complexity, layering and blurring of boundaries in the future of work.

Finally, there’s the moral dilemma. Today we have the ability to create digital humans that look real, mimicking human movements and voice. If you’re sceptical check out Lil Miquela, she looks so real that Bella Hadid made out with her in the new Calvin Klein Speak My Truth in #MyCalvins ad. Given she’s not real, but a sentient robot and virtual influencer with 1.6 million followers on Instagram that’s pretty impressive. She’s getting more action than your garden variety incel! It’s where the term deep fake comes from and why it is eclipsing fake news in our vernacular.

Robots are incapable of exercising emotional judgment, they don’t know how to behave in a professionally ethical manner. They don’t know what it means to be fair or accountable, but Chris does.

He thinks about every aspect of this as he leads us into the future, all while maintaining excitement about possibilities, helping us to overcome fears. 

Ceramic 3D print of a facade study

There’s one thing I am certain of, neither of the industrial robotic arms we had in our office can do that. So regardless of the changes that have taken place with Chris and the redefinition of what it means to work in an architectural practice, he need not worry about his job. We’re choosing him hands down over the robots. 

Sources:

Deloitte Insights – Building the Lucky Country #7 http://www.deloitte.com/insights/luckycountry

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