AI and Automation and Robots…Oh, My!

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**WHAT HAPPENS…WHEN YOU FIND A DRAFT OF A BLOG POST YOU MEANT TO POST ALMOST A YEAR AGO? Well, you adjust the content a bit and post it now!**

Almost a year ago (yes, once again, I just found this as a draft because, well, life gets in the way!), I had the pleasure of speaking in Nashville at NAR’s Tech Edge (if you haven’t been to one, click here to find out more details and when you might have a Tech Edge coming to a city near you — once we come out on the other side of this pandemic, that is…), hosted by my good friend, Nobu Hata, and sharing the stage with other friends, such as Shay Hata, Kristy Hairston, Steve Jolly, Chris Griffith, and of course, Mr. Nashville and Beyond himself, my good friend and big brother, Brian Copeland.

During Brian’s session, he showed this video — take 4 minutes to watch it now (seriously — it’s worth it):

Let all that just sink in for a moment.

The above video creeped me out for a brief moment: whoa, I thought, that “voice” sounds eerily…real. The interjection of discourse markers and filler words, such as “um” and “hmm,” made the caller sound just about as true-to-life as I would expect a robot to sound — actually, maybe even more so. Except for slightly longer-than-normal pauses, which in reality could just signal a bad phone connection, it was almost impossible to discern whether it was AI or a real human. (I ask myself now: had I NOT watched the video entirely and observed the speaker’s build-up, telling me that this was AI…had I ONLY heard the call itself, would I have suspected? Having seen it, it’s impossible to know or even hypothesize, but I’m guessing that I might have assumed it was a person, even if I had small, niggling doubts.)

Once I got over my discomfort with how real it sounded, I thought, hey, I might use that. I’d love to not have to call (phone-averse, party of one!) to make a salon appointment or schedule my oil change or any other minor detail of my life that takes up time in an otherwise hectic day, especially if those calls involve being put on hold or making small talk with an operator or receptionist who tries to up-sell me on other services. I started to see the above example as something that could save me time. I thought, what if — imagine this — I could even pre-schedule those calls/appointments to be made, as in, every eight weeks when I need a haircut and every three months when I need an oil change…and the calls just happen for me, and the appointments just appear in my calendar, as if by magic…er, I mean…by robots. I could get on board with that. And full transparency here: I do not latch on as an early adopter of all things tech: I don’t use predictive text on my iPhone, and my autocorrect often causes me more headache than convenience; I don’t own an Alexa or Amazon Echo, nor do I have a desire for either; I’m fairly certain Siri hates me. From the perspective of the above video, the attraction and fascination with AI is how it can save me time on tasks that I don’t particularly enjoy doing or that I don’t find productive.

Then, as this had me thinking, I read this article from The Guardian from February 2019: “How smart are Gmail’s ‘smart replies’?” Guardian reporter Seamus O’Reilly spent an entire week responding to every one of his emails using only Gmail’s smart replies, which O’Reilly describes as “the world’s most boring personal assistant” (and, to be honest, I didn’t even realize existed until reading this article). At the root of his experiment were the following questions: “…[H]ow well does [our email] know us? How deeply does its unsleeping, lidless eye scan our thoughts and deeds? And could I use this information, the knowledge of a god, to create a stronger, better, smarter me?”

The results? You’ll have to read the article for full access to O’Reilly’s play-by-play of “the world’s most boring Choose Your Own Adventure game,” as he classifies it (and it’s well worth the read, as it is a fully entertaining romp through a week of self-imposed email purgatory). O’Reilly chronicles the options Gmail gives him for replies to emails from his wife, a good friend, and a colleague and his mortification at the possibility of hideously inappropriate responsesThe responses predetermined for each email response were, it turns out, inexcusably bland but nevertheless completely suitable to the subject matter. In short, not only were the choices given to him by Gmail completely fine, but ultimately, no one seemed to notice.

Circle back to the AI example in the video above — also a Google product, mind you, and here I go thinking about autoresponders and smart replies and how I might use them, were I so inclined, now or in the future, compared to Gmail’s “smart replies” and the options that technology provides. The difference I see between the AI in the video and the robotic replies of Gmail is this: the video shows what is clearly meant to be a digital assistant — it’s not a robot posing as you; it’s a robot making calls, appointments, confirmations, on your behalf. Gmail’s smart replies are pretending to be you, to answer as you, to make a (somewhat daft) attempt at sounding like you, to quote O’Reilly, rendering him as “some [kind of] half-mad cyborg” throwing out exclamation points at a dizzying rate, “present[ing] me as a giddy type, pummeled into hysterics each time an attachment was received as stated” (“Received! Thanks!” and “Great, thanks!” and “Yes, I will!”). I look at my own Gmail Inbox now, suddenly very aware of those smart reply options at the bottom of the page, and notice all of the exclamation points in suggested responses to the 22 emails I tab throughout of sheer curiosity. (Punctuation is important, folks — more about that here.)

That’s a lot of exclamation points…even for me.

An article from Forbes last year explored the impact of AI on jobs as a whole. In his piece “Artificial Intelligence Will Replace Tasks, Not Jobs,” Joe McKendrick gave an unsurprising statistic: “a survey by Pew Research Internet finds Americans are roughly twice as likely to express worry (72%) than enthusiasm (33%) about a future in which robots and computers are capable of doing many jobs that humans currently do.” McKendrick cites experts, however, who point out that tasks within jobs are most likely to be replaced by automation and that executives (and I would add, and business owners — ahem, REALTOR® colleagues!) should be working to classify which tasks they or their employees do that could be revamped, reworked, optimized to be automated so that human power can be concentrated on the tasks that cannot or should not be turned over to automation.

How does this relate to and impact our real estate world? Here’s my take: There has been a lot of discussion in the real estate world of late about AI, disruptors, iBuyers, all of the things that traditional REALTORS® fear may replace them, challenge their place in the real estate transaction, kill their businesses, and other “THE SKY IS FALLING!” reactions to technology and shiny objects.

Is there a place for this kind of technology in our world? Absolutely. I have an AI responder on my website for our live chat function because, I promise you, if someone starts a chat at 3 AM, they’re going to get some pretty good autogenerated response, but it isn’t going to be me. I don’t want to miss the lead, but I don’t want to be pinged at all hours either (and neither should you, by the way). Could a version be used to help buyers schedule showings of my listings? Maybe someday, a version similar to the video that checks my calendar requests that a prequalification letter and some form of ID be submitted before confirming the appointment. Sure! Is Google most certainly going to continue to find ways to improve this technology so that the Gmail smart replies can better express the personality of the sender (and cut down on the egregious abundance of exclamation points)? Highly likely, if I know anything about Google…

According to McKendrick’s take on AI in Forbes, we are having the wrong dialogue: “instead of pondering how jobs will be wiped out, people need to focus on “the redesign of jobs and re-engineering of business processes.” We need to flip the script, take a look from another perspective, and consider approaching automation from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. We need to recognize that some tasks “are more susceptible to automation, while others require judgment, social skills, and other hard-to-automate human capabilities. But just because some of the activities in a job have been automated, does not imply that the whole job has disappeared.” Sound familiar, REALTOR® friends?

A 2017 article listed the six skills that AI won’t replace, and the list includes empathy, creativity, judgment, and planning (one could argue that the video above, just two years later, shows that AI can complete some forms of planning, with a rigorous set of guidelines, i.e., a calendar or schedule), all of which come into play in real estate transactions. It’s short-sighted to think that there will never come a time when a transaction can be completely automated — the world of iBuyers, though still relatively new, is proving to us that some transactions are ripe for automation, and some consumers will appreciate that convenience. However, one might also argue that most real estate transactions are more nuanced than what a purely automated experience can deal with, at least for now.

Is this technology going to replace me, kill my business, render me jobless and penniless and homeless, and everything else the Chicken Littles and Debbie Downers of the world would have me believe? I doubt it. (Remember when REALTORS® thought the internet would kill their business and an online MLS would spell the end of the world?) Call me unflinchingly optimistic (those who know me know this is decidedly not the case). Call me ignorant. Call me just plain wrong. I truly don’t believe that 100% of consumers will decide that they’d rather deal with a robot than a person in their real estate transaction. However, I believe that we need to be aware, educated, wake up and pay attention. Be willing to adjust our business models. Be listening to consumers, asking them what they want, and responding to them in the here and now. The REALTORS®, and really, those in any industry that deals directly with the consumer, who will survive long-term are those who listen and are willing to adapt.

As with any form of evolution, those who are forward-thinking, looking for ways to grow and change, adapting to their surroundings and the evolving wishes and desires of their environment (i.e., the consumer world), are the most adept and equipped for survival. Those who fear change, who resist or refuse to transform their businesses, will likely fall by the wayside, surpassed and out-maneuvered by the competitors who paid attention, listened to the cues that signaled that their environs were changing, and demanded new perspectives and business models. In short: survival of the fittest.

I, for one, have started to enjoy the idea of handing over some of those little tasks to a digital assistant. But am I ready to trust a driverless car? Nope, nada, no thank you, no way, dude…