Peter Dickinson, CTO
September 22, 2015

I often write and speak about the potential collision of AI (artificial intelligence) technologies with employment in our industry. A recent NPR (US-based National Public Radio) article got me thinking. It had to do with the history of elevator drivers and their replacement with automation. It’s hard to recall if I’ve ever been in a lift with a ‘driver’. I seem to recall a very old department store, which had one, but I could be mixing this memory up with a movie scene. That seems to happen more as I get older but maybe one day I’ll recall being a Jedi. That would be awesome.

Anyway, the lift driver was the norm some time ago and the introduction of driverless elevator was a very scary proposition for drivers and passengers alike. People were known to walk into the lift and then walk out again when there was no driver present. A recorded voice — and a range of other measures — had to be introduced to help people along with accepting this scary new proposition. This all sounds somewhat amusing in retrospect but the loss of jobs is certainly not. In 1945 the drivers in New York went on strike.

Millions of dollars worth of productivity was lost across the city and I think we all know the end result — automation won. This particular 70 year-old example of technological disruption seems to be repeating itself — but in a much bigger and growing way. We see this in taxi driver protests and strikes across the world resulting — invariably — in huge upswing in people using Uber. On the other hand, there has been little organized action against other automation advances such as a new, automated restaurant in San Francisco, self-serve checkouts across the world and self-serve hotel check-in in Manhattan and Nagasaki.

Organization is probably the key word here. In various markets across the world I have come across some very proud union members in the facility engineering profession. Does that mean we are headed for strike action as more advanced automation can handle more of the commercial building management workload? Frankly I don’t think so. I never met an underworked facility manager. Given the huge range of wide and varied tasks handled by our hard working building managers – along with an honest assessment of the state of AI– I really believe this will be a profession that is safe for some time.

In the mean time, the AI we have access to now will continue to help leverage the time and skills of the people we work with everyday. Free from any fears of being replaced, we should all happily embrace anything that improves performance and saves us from the dangerous, dirty, and mundane.