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CIH Cymru – Can AI make us better professionals?

In the wake of the UK prime minister’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) summit, Matt Dicks asks what the rise of the machines means for us as housing professionals and the values we aspire to.

The so-called ‘Godfather’ of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, announced his resignation from Google last year saying he ‘regretted his work’. That was followed almost immediately by an announcement from BT that they will shed around 50,000 jobs by the end of the decade in plans to shift to AI.

I wrote a piece for WHQ back in 2017 about what was then being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which research from Oxford University claimed that we would see 35 per cent of British jobs automated. One estimate put that at around 700,000 jobs in Wales.

Most at risk, according to the research, are telemarketing jobs (99per cent at risk), routine legal work (94 per cent ) and the fast food sector (81 per cent), but there are also trades such as carpet fitters (87 per cent), glaziers (73per cent) and even architects (52 percent) which could be replaced by machines.

Now six years later, we have the AI Godfather blowing the whistle and telling us that ‘we should worry seriously about how we stop these things getting control over us’ and that AI chatbots are ‘quite scary’.

That pronouncement was closely followed by a public statement from dozens of global tech experts, including Hinton along with the CEOs of Google DeepMind and OpenAI, which said that ‘mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority’.

All this media chatter spurred Rishi Sunak to call an international conference of the major economic nations in November to look at the implications of AI, and to mitigate against it being used for malevolent purposes.

Now, had this been an item on GB News, I would’ve probably just dismissed it as more guff from the conspiracy theorists – but these are the people that know what they are talking about, right? I don’t know about you but unlike some I’m still prepared to put my faith in the experts!

So that got me to thinking about the impact that the developments in AI, and particularly the pace at which it is happening, will have on us as housing professionals – and specifically on the culture and values that we hold at the centre of everything we do.

Inevitably technology will allow us to advance the standard of the homes and services that we provide. It could streamline services and improve tenant experience, but at a time when we are soul-searching as a sector following the tragedies at Grenfell and in Rochdale, and asking ourselves about how we embed better organisational culture, specifically to better respond to disrepair and tenant experience, is AI what we need?

Can AI provide the empathy and ethical framework in which we all aim to do our jobs as housing professionals – more simply, can machines have a soul, and particularly the soul of a housing professional committed to tackling social injustice through the provision of a safe, affordable, and sustainable place to call home?

Many organisations (most banks) are already employing Chat GPT to implement virtual assistance systems and to tackle fraud, with one bank reporting a 40 per cent reduction in time taken to resolve customer queries, as well as driving down costs.

So, we can all envisage a sun-lit upland where AI could improve tenant engagement and communication, where repair times are decreased, where security for our tenants can be improved, and where better/quicker maintenance prediction can be employed.

But one of the key mantras that came out of the tragedy of the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak was the lack of organisational culture trickling down from the top to ensure positive and timely outcomes for tenants.

AI and the better use of data (or at least a better understanding of what it is really telling us) can deliver a more robust environment in terms of meeting our shared commitment of providing a safe, sustainable and affordable home for everyone in Wales.

If technology can drive down costs whilst improving standards, then it is a development we will all support. But the overriding question for CIH Cymru is: can AI make us better professionals? Where does the individual sit as we embed AI into our systems? Whilst it can be seen as a positive, helping to drive efficiencies, we must not forget the role of the individual and customer-focus as we drive professionalism within the housing sector. After all we are in the business of homes and people.

Matt Dicks is director of CIH Cymru

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