I’m Still “Skeptimistic” About AI

Mike – I’m the guy from the audience in Nashville who asked you a question last month about the impact of AI on the skilled trades. I loved your answer – (the “insemination” part as well as the “intelligence” part. I should have been more specific about which AI!) Like you, I’m both skeptical and somewhat optimistic about the benefit of the bargain regarding artificial intelligence. (“Skeptimistic” as you called it.) But I just read that you’re collaborating on an AI initiative with a construction company, and I’m wondering if you feel more hopeful that AI is not going to turn us into slaves? Frankly, I worry more with every passing day…Gary Marsden

Hi Gary – Your question did indeed lead me to compare and contrast the challenges of gathering semen from a bull with the challenges of navigating a brave new world that’s going to be influenced by artificial intelligence in every imaginable way. And for that, I am in your debt.

What’s more interesting however, is the number of times I’ve been asked to comment on the impact of AI on the construction trades over the last year. In short, I think it’s going to help attract more young people into the trades, and that’s a very positive thing. But more broadly, I still think of AI like a smartphone, or a firearm. In the right hands, it’ll be a tool for progress like nothing we’ve ever seen before. In the wrong hands, the capacity for mischief will be amplified to infinity and beyond.

At this point, I’m afraid the poop is out of the goose, and I doubt we can get it back in. So, I’m looking for companies that are using AI in ways that compliment mikeroweWORKS, and one of those companies is Digs. They’re not really a construction company, but they are absolutely impacting the construction industry, both with AI technology that’s helping people design new homes, and with collaborative software that streamlines the communication process between the builder, the various vendors involved with every project, and the customer. I won’t turn this into a commercial for Digs, but I will repeat what I said in Nashville – every builder I know, (and I know a bunch), is wide open to working with artificial intelligence. Because every builder I know is currently over budget and behind schedule on every single project. And the reason is universally the same – a paucity of skilled labor.

I know I’m a broken record on this, but every custom home builder I know is over sixty, and all of them employ a dozen or so skilled workers – electricians, plumbers, foundation experts, tile guys, floor guys, etc., none of whom are under fifty-five. This is a monumental shift from just a few decades ago, when the average skilled tradesman was 35 years old. Today, for every five skilled tradesmen who retire, two replace them. It’s been that way for over a decade, and it’s not getting any better.

To answer your question, Gary, I’m still “skeptimistic,” in general. But if I was looking for something to lose sleep over, I’d consider the math surrounding the skills gap. A 5:2 ratio of retiring skilled workers is not sustainable. Imagine a workforce with no skilled labor. Imagine a country where new homes take too long to build and cost too much to buy. And old homes never get fixed. Imagine a country where bridges and roads are constantly under construction, and the rest of our infrastructure is literally falling apart around us, because nobody wants to learn a skill that’s truly in demand. I’m afraid we’re rushing toward a kind of Vocational Idiocracy, and if we don’t do something to inspire, motivate, persuade, induce, cajole, or otherwise encourage the next generation to truly become the Toolbelt Generation, then we’re going to need companies like Digs to help us rethink and retool the way homes get built, along with pretty much everything else. Except of course, for the business of gathering semen from a prized bull.

Last I checked, that’s still a hands-on job.

PS. If you’re building a house, here’s another good read in the Journal, that illustrates how the power of AI can be used for good.

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