How Artificial Intelligence is Impacting Multifamily

artificial intelligence


Artificial intelligence is here, but how does multifamily cope with it?

Artificial intelligence is on everybody’s mind, it seems. And if billionaire investor Warren Buffett is concerned, shouldn’t we all be?

At Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting, Buffett said the technology could be “enormously disruptive.” AI could result in significant employment loss, he added, but make the economy more efficient.

Berkshire Hathaway empowers AI across its portfolio. Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad uses locomotives so technologically advanced, they practically drive themselves. A train crew once numbering four or five is now down to two, and some railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration are pushing for one-man crews.

Those long freight trains in the backdrop might soon be running themselves, complementing the movement for self-driving cars and trucks. Two years ago, railroaders began discussing the impact of driverless trucks on their freight operations.

It’s a legitimate worry. Many wonder what AI will mean to their businesses, the economy – even themselves.

Questions about the future

Understanding artificial intelligence goes beyond a conversation with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, or even that adorable Siri. Voice-activated assistants are most recognizable in the AI cache, but total artificial intelligence includes nearly all facets of machine automation. A toaster is AI when you get right down to it.

It’s a machine that saves some poor soul from having to turn a piece of bread on a coat hanger over an open flame until brown. The invention of the pop-up toaster by Charles Strite in 1921 no doubt eliminated numerous first-degree burn claims resulting from breakfast.

In communication, AI is that disturbing phone tree that rarely helps callers (just try to get through to the IRS right now). The human sacrifice is the operators who from 9 to 5 directed incoming calls.

But AI today far exceeds dialing extensions and transferring calls, which poses the real question: How do we use it, and what will happen to all of us if we’re replaced by robots?

What about the four million-plus taxi drivers, Uber drivers and truck drivers who could be affected by automatically driven vehicles? One trucking industry expert told CBS News that pilots will be needed to help coordinate truck movements but fewer people will be needed to put the pedal to the metal.

AI has created the threat of a jobless future, according to Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots. He says journalists like me could be out of a job, replaced by a machine. Already, he told CBS, machines are producing stories every day as fast as you can ask, “Siri, who invented the flux capacitor?”

One study suggests that in the next 20 years, 47 percent of Americans could lose their job to AI.

Could machines ultimately build apartments?

Others counter that AI will need people to maintain machines, plan their assignments and get them to where they need to be. Too, some job functions simply cannot be replaced.

A construction superintendent recently told me that he’s not worried about automation overtaking the craft of building houses, apartments and commercial spaces. Building and framing is not an exact science, he said. Ever seen a perfectly square concrete slab? Real-time improvisation must accommodate different sizes and shapes of lumber and other materials. Fact of life.

But as long ago as 2007, machines began laying bricks and blocks, and welding steel on structures. Today robots cut, grind, sand, paint, drill and assemble.

An engineer may argue that it’s very possible for a robot to replace at least some of a crew of six to hammer studs, apply decking and trim out a structure under the direction of an on-site carpenter. Ask any multifamily developer who’s behind on a project because he can’t get labor, and you might hear, “When?”

A framing contractor agreed that many construction functions can’t be replaced, and he feared what would happen to unemployed specialized laborers if robots went to work. Framers can’t work on robots, he said. They’re not engineers.

MIT economist David Autor told CBS that America should take a deep breath. Fears of AI overtaking the workforce are exaggerated, he said, adding that this mindset parallels the early 1900s when automation came to the agriculture industry.

Even though some jobs eventually were lost to machines that picked cotton and prepared fields, other jobs grew up in related areas that strengthened business and the economy. Workers who were less confined to menial tasks could now devote more time to customer service and quality control.

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AI in multifamily can work if it’s done right

Many say it’s too soon to predict how Artificial intelligence will transform the construction, transportation, even the apartment industry. In the April issue of UNITS magazine, some of multifamily’s forward-looking experts examined the pros and cons. Most believe it’s a wait-and-see while others are taking steps to use the cutting-edge technology now.

Perhaps voice-activated messaging could cover the gap when humans can’t tend to residents, or help prospects in their search for a new apartment by providing more information. One company plans an AI chatbox on its website to offer a guided conversation that offers options to click and explore – encourage a prospect to set an appointment or fill out an application by answering as many questions as possible any time, anywhere. Then let the closers seal the deal.

Also, software companies are exploring voice search technology for ways to improve website performance when prospects ask Alexa, Siri or Home for apartments near them. A search-optimized website becomes even more crucial, one expert says. Being No. 1 will be even more important.

But AI in multifamily can only work if it’s done right, another expert said. If it fails, the consequences could be bad.

Don’t underestimate the power of artificial intelligence

While AI may appear to threaten some livelihoods, it ultimately could help improve property management performance. It could free on-site staff to spend more time with applicants and have a better understanding of their needs at the time of the call.

Don’t underestimate the power of artificial intelligence. Who would have thought in the early 1900s – or even 30 years ago – that you’d be reading this article on a device in the palm of your hand?

At RealWorld 2017, Ashwin Karuhatty, Business Development Leader for Alexa Smart Properties at Amazon, talked about how voice will be the connecting agent of the future. Check out Karuhatty’s insights about the role of artificial intelligence in multifamily.


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

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Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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