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May 02, 2019

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How humans, Alexa and robots can improve lives

If somebody said to you five years ago, that artificial intelligence (AI) would now be making inroads into the housing sector, would you have believed it or simply dismissed it?

Looking at AI from a more general perspective, at the turn of the millennium, I wonder how many people truly conceived it as being possible that we would be using our voice as a primary interface between us and artificial intelligence, as we do with Siri or Alexa? Would we have considered it feasible that a robot named Sophia would be introduced into the United Nations and later granted citizenship? What would the reaction have been to the suggestion that AI would be able to more accurately diagnose a disease than human? Yet all of these scenarios are a reality and having a positive impact in 2018.

To some people, this would have been realistic, given that research into AI began in the 1950s. However, the majority of people would have met such ideas with scepticism and thought that AI would be at most a gimmick at this stage.

Even as AI started being used more significantly, the doubts still lingered; in industry and science, it was considered to be out of the reach of the average company. Only the likes of NASA, the military or multi-national companies were ever thought to be able to benefit from it. From a consumer standpoint, developments such as Alexa were nothing more than toys to show off to our friends or family. This scepticism was soon then bolstered with doses of fear.

As with all things, it’s in our nature to question and be fearful of the unknown. AI in one sense could be viewed as posing the greatest potential threat to humanity we have ever witnessed and there will naturally be people who are convinced that it is inevitable. Arguments are already being made that AI will take our jobs, will become too clever for us to control, or that maybe we will soon be the pets of the world rather than the master and then next thing you know we will be fighting alongside John Connor against the machines… okay, perhaps not necessarily the last one.

While I can empathise with such fears to an extent, I think it’s more helpful to focus on the positive impact AI is already having and what else it could enable us to do, such as:

Each of these examples is evidence of how AI can empower us to provide better services, a better standard of living and ultimately help us all more. All of these are objectives which are ingrained into the social housing sector too, so how can we leverage AI, when is the time to do it, and who will do it?

AI’s positive impact on housing

Over the last year or so, there has been a clear trend in our sector towards the use of data science, machine learning and AI. It could be argued that the combined topic of data science and machine learning is already becoming the norm and is now a topic that we expect to read about and see. And although AI is still seen as the next step, it’s actually here to be used now.

There are already some examples of its positive impact in our sector. For example, at a Chartered Institute of Housing event earlier this year, I showed a video of a tenant engaging with Alexa and getting information she needed by voice command. Furthermore, chatbots have been already deployed by housing providers to provide an additional communications channel and 24/7 support to tenants.

This is a good start but it is just the tiny tip of a very large iceberg. It’s clear that there are so many other opportunities for this technology in our sector. For example, robots could help with tasks such as shopping, lifting heavy items or reminding a tenant to take their medicine.

Alexa could be used more to give tenants additional self-service methods. What if a tenant could diagnose a repair by using their phone to scan the object, with the resulting imagery then processed via deep learning. Once diagnosed, the relevant repair and skill set would be determined and resources automatically scheduled for the best date available, based on the tenant’s predefined preferences. To take this a step further, what if a robot could manage everyday repairs in a property, leaving contractors free to focus on more complex and urgent jobs? A final example, which is arguably the most human of them all, is the provision of companionship, someone to talk to, to gain advice from or even just to listen. Something we can’t always provide at the right time.

Hopefully by now I’ve opened your eyes to the idea that AI is no longer something for the future; it’s here now and its benefits will only continue to evolve. AI is no longer seen as a gimmick and it is positively affecting a wide variety of sectors and companies of all shapes and sizes.

The benefits of AI need to be embraced by the housing sector; the opportunity is there, the next stage is to decide what we are going to do with it.

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