I want to return to the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the possible consequences on the plumbing profession. Commentators continue to offer their ideas on the impact of AI and the introduction of robots. Their views span a wide spectrum ranging from significant to less significant consequences. It is a fascinating but complex topic particularly as it relates to practical and trade professions. Alan Turin articulated his ideas when laying the foundations of computing and information technology. His question about the limits of the introduction of robots is fundamental and commentators still attempt to address the possible answers.
Robots already perform many practical activities in manufacturing industries but the key question is to what level will be ultimately achieved and the impact of workers on plumbing.
Let’s now reflect on the implications for the plumbing profession. Clearly the consequences are different for on- site installation, problem solving as well as the manufacturing stage of the components and is critically dependent of the plumber’s employment status. Many plumbers work with large companies whilst many are self-employed and this will present different issues and challenges to the workers. These elements coupled with the development of modular/off-site construction offers a number of challenges when introducing AI and the use of robots into the profession.
I am not plumber but have a great respect for the profession indeed all the trades having worked in technical education. I have also always valued the work of the professional institutes that represent the trades. The professional institutes are very important in representing their respective trades and that is why it is essential that practitioners are members particularly at this critical time.
I have the honour of chairing the Education and Training Group for the CIPHE. So I write as an enthusiastic outsider. The institute and ETG have been discussing this issue and will continue to do so.
The impact of AI and the introduction of robots will be different for on-site installation and at the manufacturing phase of the components. Clearly the manufacture of the components will be done by robots as in other industries. However the real challenges arise with onsite installation and problem solving.
It is the issues associated with on-site installation and problem solving that I think raises fundamental questions about the extensive use of robots. Very often plumbers come across unexpected problems and it is their previous experience and knowledge that solves these often unique problems. I think robots will not be able to achieve this however well programmed they are. The human touch for me is fundamental. Whilst on the human touch one of the appealing aspects of plumbing for domestic and commercial enterprises is the relationship that develops between the plumber and the customer I think that will be seriously diluted with the introduction of robots. This will be true for all the trades.
Another issue is associated with the actual working environment for the plumber which is very often very limited and cramped so it could present problems when using robots. The limitations of space could create major limitations in regard to the size of the robots. Also the age of the plumbing system could present problems depending on its scale and complexity of the system. Again the human touch will prove invaluable and again I think be beyond the robot capabilities.
I would be interested in what practicing plumbers think about this fascinating topic and also their views on the development of modular construction. Their working styles could be changed fundamentally so it would be great to hear their views.