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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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It's happening already

4 August 2017

There have been a number of predictions that robots will take over almost half the jobs currently performed by people within the next decade or so.

Like many, I scoffed at this assertion. I mean, seriously, robots?

Well, on reflection, it's looking as if these predictions could be right on the money and if we look closely we can see that the robotisation (is that a word?) is already well underway.

As if to prove this point, I heard a very interesting piece on NatRad this morning in which there was discussion of a Chinese construction robot that can build an entire 50+ story building in a matter of days.

Apparently, this robot can be shipped in 40-foot containers to anywhere in the world and could effectively render huge numbers of construction workers jobless.

Who'd have thought?

So I did a little googling and found that there are indeed a great number of "construction robots" already being developed or in use.

3D printing of buildings is already a "thing" and it's looking as if it won't be long before builders are joining the dole queue in many countries -- especially where the preferred construction materials are bricks and mortar. Brick-laying robots are already dramatically reducing costs and speeding up the construction of buildings around the world.

In the Netherlands, Dutch robotics firm MX3D has developed a system for the robotic construction of steel bridges and this story makes interesting reading, as does this one.

The arrival of robotised construction techniques could pose some real challenges for the New Zealand property sector too.

Imagine if the cost of building a high-rise building was slashed by 50% or more as a result of robotisation. What would that do to the value of existing structures like this? I would expect their value to fall significantly as the "replacement cost" became far less than their original construction cost. That would surely throw a spanner in the works of NZ's commercial property market where falling values have never really been seen before.

Who'd want to lease a floor in an existing high-rise when the cost of the same space in a new robot-built building could be half the price?

With the incredibly high leverage levels at which many Kiwi property companies operate, the arrival of a few Chinese construction robots by way of a boat-load of containers might just cause some significant failures within the property market.

And we have to ask... what will all those redundant construction workers do to pay their bills?

It's starting to look as if we should be already planning for the effects of automation in industries that were previously labour-intensive. If we wait too long then it will likely be too late to implement strategies for dealing with the rising levels of unemployment this will inevitably produce.

Sadly, I've seen nothing from any of the parties running for election this year that indicates this problem is even on their radar yet.

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