A Robot Whisperer takes on construction

Tessa Lau, CEO of Dusty Robotics, wants to fix the building sector’s productivity problems.

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When Tessa Lau was eight, she got her first computer, a TRS-80, from Radio Shack. This was before CDs, and before floppy disks the size of your hand that were actually floppy. The TRS-80’s computer memory was miniscule compared to any wireless appliance in your home today. “It was all downhill from there,” jokes the CEO and founder of Dusty Robotics.

For Lau, that first computer was the start of her journey to becoming a “Robot Whisperer”, her chosen title as head of a robotics start-up. Now, with nine years of experience in this field, she is working to revolutionise construction through artificial intelligence.

It was while Lau was remodelling her home that she realised robotics could help the industry. Productivity in construction has been behind other parts of the economy for decades, according to 2017 research from the McKinsey Global Institute. A labour shortage is part of the problem, as is the fact that many building methods have not modernised. “People are still using paper-based projects,” says Lau. “That’s how businesses work in the construction industry, and so modernisation is late to come”.

Lau’s company is one of dozens of US start-ups hoping to change construction through robotics. While others are innovating in roofing or logistics, Dusty Robotics specialises in automated layout services. Lau and her business partner spent six months speaking to people in construction and on building sites. “We bought hard hats and steel-toe boots and learned how to operate the manlifts and how to walk on rebar [reinforcing bar],” she says.

When Lau and her team were clearing up a construction site at the end of the day, they understood what their robots should be doing. Groups of workers were measuring up and debating where to put features, marking them out on the ground on their hands and knees. The job was physically demanding yet required a high level of skill. It was an ideal task for a robot.

Construction is still dominated by family firms, all with their own ways of doing things, and many people grow up in the industry. In the UK, it is the sector with the highest number of family businesses, according to research by Cynergy Bank. “Few outsiders really understand the scope of what construction is and how complicated it gets,” she adds.

The variety of people working on building sites was particularly surprising to Lau. She recalled walking around a project to build student accommodation in the Bay Area, California. More than 2,000 people worked on any given day and behind each builder were suppliers, logistics people, and support staff. “There’s this stereotype that says people in construction are reluctant to adopt new technology and they’re never going to change,” Lau says, “I think that could not be further from the truth”.

It was a project called “Robots for Humanity” that first brought Tessa Lau into robotics. She worked with a man called Henry Evans, who had lost use of his limbs following a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair. Lau helped program robots to enable Evans to carry out mundane tasks, like feeding himself or scratching his nose.

At the time, Lau was working on software at IBM, where she had been for 11 years. Seeing how robots could transform a life made her realise that “for all of the work that I was doing in software and tech, none of that could actually touch peoples’ lives the way robotics could”.

She left IBM and founded a start-up called Savioke, developing robots for the hospitality sector. They would perform routine tasks like delivering room service in hotels and medication in hospitals, and providing support in elderly care. Lau thought of her parents who are “not that young”, and of getting to the age where she will need assistance. “I would much rather preserve my independence and have a robot assist me with my basic needs,” she explains.

Savioke was where she became a “Robot Whisperer”. “I wanted to have a little bit of fun,” she explains. Traditional titles like CEO did not appeal and she wanted to reflect the care and intuition needed to make robots work. “Just as dog whisperers and horse whisperers really understand the creatures under their care, I wanted to do the same for robotics,” she says.

For those who still see robots as a thing of the future, the Robot Whisperer thinks they are already with us. “I think of my dishwasher as a robot. Put the dirty dishes in and the clean dishes come out. What is that if not robotic automation?” She believes that specific appliances such as these will be entering our lives in the near future, but the potential beyond that is huge. Robots can be used to “augment” human efforts, she argues, giving people “better power tools” and even promoting equality in jobs that have traditionally been about physical strength. With the right tools, a person like Henry Evans could be as good a construction worker as anyone else.

However, there is always the fear that advances in robotics will automtically lead to fewer humans in work. Lau says this is not an issue in construction, where there is a labour and skills shortage, and her remit is about creating better tools for workers, not replacing them. We are still a long way away from machines like Mr Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lau’s favourite fictional robot.

Longer-term, however, Lau knows that eventually human jobs will start to be displaced by machines, and her answer is universal basic income, an idea she came across in Andrew Yang’s 2018 book The War on Ordinary People. “In the US, our philosophy has always been ‘if you want to have a decent living, you need to work’”, she says. But in a world with widespread automation the only “decent, human” response is to “raise the floor” and provide an income to people. “You shouldn’t be dependent on your ability to attract a job in this future where automation is everywhere, and that should not be the condition to eat and have a roof over your heads.” 

Back on the construction sites, work is starting up again after the coronavirus lockdown. The need to socially distance means fewer workers can be on site at a given time. One solution to that is using robots to augment the workforce, says Lau.

“A lot of these changes from coronavirus are probably going to persist and so there’s going to be a continued push to limit numbers of people on job sites and trying to do more with less. That is exactly what robotics is good for.” 

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight policy report on The Future of Work: AI and Automation

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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