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Artificial Intelligence friend or foe in FM?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is predicted to have a huge impact on the FM landscape, according to a new Insight report published by RICS in collaboration with IFMA. Who will benefit from the opportunities AI offers, and who will fall foul of the challenges it presents?

Artificial Intelligence is making the headlines. This September academics at Plymouth University revealed that a fifth of school-age children believe that they will be friends with a robot in the future. Days later, Jeremy Corbyn announced that, if he wins power, his government will slap a ‘Robot tax’ on companies using AI and advanced automation processes.

So, with AI in the news, the publication of the Artificial Intelligence in the Built Environment Insight Paper is very timely.

Big data and processing power have grown exponentially over the past few decades, but it’s only with the introduction of AI that there has been the catalyst for truly disruptive technology.

AI has evolved from the dusty corner of the research lab to the mainstream. Self-driving cars, healthcare diagnostics, bomb disposal robots and a plethora of smartphone apps that rely on AI are no longer on the distant horizon, they are here.

FM specific examples range from the drones buzzing high above us for maintenance inspection, to wearable technology that tracks our every move for workforce management and security applications. Infamously, Swedish company Epicenter even implants microchips into its (volunteer) workers that enable them to open doors, operate printers, or buy snacks with just a wave of a hand.

What we don’t have is seamless connectivity between AI applications. Yet. This would enable disparate AI technologies to interact independent of human instruction or intervention. But, how long before these so-called synergistic benefits occur?

Chris Hoar, co-author of the RICS Insight report, is also co-founder of AIinFM, a group set up to identify the most important developments in the field of Artificial Intelligence within FM.

He believes the FM sector will be quick to adopt AI devices because of the opportunities the technology brings.

“Within the built environment, the impact of AI will be felt the greatest in facility management,” says Hoar. “This is because areas of FM have scope for automation.

“AI empowered machines offer efficiencies. Many activities will be completed by AI devices more quickly, more reliably, more safely and at a lower cost offering best value for clients.”

Hoar maintains that operational activities such as cleaning, security, maintenance, catering and many logistics activities, will be revolutionised by the introduction of AI.

“We’re looking at the biggest upheaval since the Industrial Revolution,” says Hoar. “Look at the benefits, including wealth generation, that were introduced by mechanisation in the 18th and 19th centuries. We’re looking at socio-economic changes on a similar scale, perhaps even greater.”

Many of us who find labour-saving gadgets attractive can appreciate the appeal of intelligent automation. However, Hoar and his co-authors believe that FM workers and firms that don’t change with the times may face a challenging future.

“Margins in the sector are already squeezed, so traditional FM contractors will find it tough to compete unless they embrace change.”

Surely, the human touch will remain a valuable asset? “Human workers will be appreciated in client management and strategy, but clients are extremely price sensitive,” says Hoar.

So, with some of their workers replaced by robots are FM firms set to profit? “Many traditional FM firms simply don’t have the capital to invest in this kind of technology. Increasingly the role of the FM director will be become blurred with the IT department.

“I can envisage tech firms, that have both the expertise and the capital, moving into this space too, so there could well be increased competition.”

The world seems to have been fantasising about AI for decades now. But now that it’s here, and proving itself, Hoar believes its progress and adoption will be rapid. “Think back 10 years and we couldn’t have imagined what can be achieved with the now ubiquitous smartphone. We cannot begin to appreciate what the next decade will bring, but the FM sector needs to start preparing for transformation now.”

FM will always have a vital part to play within the built environment, but it is destined to evolve into a high-tech, strategic discipline.

Are you ready for change?

About Sarah OBeirne


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