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A Chat with a PropTech Influencer who Created a Robot to Empower Real Estate Professionals

Nathan Stanogias 15 July 2019

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This article was produced in partnership with AIRE Software

That robot's name is RITA.

She was born into this world by a very clever bunch of self-proclaimed nerds who call themselves AIRE Software. They're an Australian-based PropTech startup who are too smart for their own good.

RITA is the first ever digital employee for real estate professionals – she’s pretty much one of the only platforms to deliver true artificial intelligence to real estate. And she’s arguably the only employee in the world who's capable of winning employee of the month every month.

We're fascinated by the greatest minds in PropTech, and we wanted the opportunity to pick the brains of the people behind AIRE Software so we can collectively nerd-out about property technology and the changing nature of real estate. Our wishes were granted.

We were lucky enough to steal some time from co-founder Sarah Bell's hectic schedule to learn a little bit about her professional journey, and of course, her story behind giving birth to RITA – the robot woman who's revolutionising the real estate game.

We dive into the rise of artificial intelligence, MIT nerds, and the power of consuming copious amounts of coffee, among other heavy-hitting PropTech topics.

Here's our conversation.

Q: I'm teeing off with a really challenging question here: how much do you love coffee?

A: My physical constitution is about 97% coffee, some days it is more like 97.7%. I’d like to be more efficient with my caffeine consumption, perhaps organise some kind of direct intravenous type get-down – strait from a cold pour into my heart.

Q: Let's stay with the coffee theme for a moment. I’m going to read you a quote and I want you to tell me what comes to mind first: "With enough coffee, I feel as though all things are possible. Many remain unlikely but they are possible."

A: Anything IS possible. Time travel, for example IS a mathematical possibility. I don’t think coffee gives you a growth mindset or enables your imagination in any way...but it does keep you awake enough to execute on some of the more ambitious designs that show up with inspiration. Coffee and weirdness are essential ingredients to creative thinking.

Q: You went to MIT last year for a course, which is not something just anybody does. Talk about your time there...

A: MIT hosted an executive course in the strategic application of AI to organisations as a collaboration between their Sloan Management School and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The lecturers were world leaders and included roboticists, computational biologists, computer scientists, data scientists, and business leaders, and it really gave me some insight into how the best minds in the world are conceiving the possibilities of artificial intelligence, and are applying them to real world scenarios.

I took a lot away from the work of Professor Lo, whose work has been in applying the techniques of AI to the financial sector. One of his projects was a model that sought to understand the real and unbiased indicators of default in mortgagors.

And he accidentally proved an incredible amount of unjustified human bias in the criteria that was being applied to lending decisions; bias that made it much more difficult for single women, and single mothers, to achieve finance regardless of their individual disposition to make the repayments.

I look at scenarios like that and I see the enormous hope that exists for AI to improve our lives in ways that we may not have been able to challenge or substantiate without data or the insights it has revealed.

Q: Before we get stuck into the PropTech-y questions, I want to touch on all the work you do for the greater good. What inspires you to volunteer?

A: I am very grateful for the privilege I have had, even for the privilege of experience through the hard knocks and hard hearts I’ve encountered along the way.

I have a tattoo on my arm from the parable of the wedding feast that says, “As much is given, much is required”. So for me it isn’t enough to feel #blessed or #grateful.

With privilege comes an opportunity and means to do something when it is always easier to do nothing.

Q: Ok, so what fascinates you the most about the changing nature of the real estate industry?

A: For generations in real estate, things have remained largely the same. Even with the digital revolution, it was often just a matter of replicating offline processes to online ones.

With the efficiencies and possibilities of new technology, intelligent technology, we have a real gear change and to effect a much more impactful change to work than ever before by connecting humans and computers, not just putting them in front of one another.

For the first time in a really long time we are pioneers and the answers aren’t known – we don’t have certainty – just a lot of opportunity to reimagine work.

Q: Let's talk a little bit about why the real estate industry can’t afford to not innovate. What are your thoughts on this?

A: My view is that the real estate industry is facing a crisis of differentiation. With very similar service designs, serviced by the same supplier and taught by the same trainers has created something of a homogenous market offering that is not tangibly different across the supply base of agents.

In economics, when there is no means of differentiation, the only competitive battle ground is price – and we see symptoms of a price war to the bottom taking hold already.

For a human service that customers are prepared to pay for, we need to find a way to meaningfully differentiate to dominate – which means that our unique human-ness, and the customer service that we deliver through our humanity, so that is our mental and emotional labour, could be a key driver of differentiation. Our relationships become the next (and possibly the last) remaining competitive battleground for property service professionals.

Mental and emotional labour is difficult to scale though, and there are some natural limits as to how many relationships that we can maintain. Innovation is not about outsourcing the relationships to digital tools; it’s about using digital tools, including artificial intelligence, to help optimise the human-to-human interaction.

Q: Tell us about the story behind AIRE Software. What inspired the founding of your organisation?

A: AIRE was founded by Ian Campbell, a proper all-round nerd with a very impressive record of success in corporate roles as a technology leader in both real estate organisations and technology providers.

In May 2017, Ian started AIRE with a curiosity to see what problems could be solved in real estate using the capabilities of AI and automation. During his development cycle, we crossed paths. I shared the same curiosity and found myself with trans-disciplinary skills in data, research, and the humanities, and I then discovered how to apply it in a real estate context.

Then RITA was born in August 2017, and it wasn’t long after that that I couldn’t resist the potential and came on board as Co-Founder in November 2017. The now 10 strong team boasts an anti-disciplinary mix of software engineers, data scientists, UX specialists and real estate subject matter experts to make sure that RITA is growing strong and in a way that is adding value to the agents and businesses who employ her.

The common thing about the Founders of AIRE is that we are insatiably curious and devoid of patience. The early days of AIRE were really focussed on understanding the problems that RITA would solve and this involved an incredible amount of deep research into technology, service design, data flows and behaviour to ideate and build a solution that went beyond the surface, and really got to the crux of some very complex challenges that the real estate industry is facing in the 21st century.

Q: Is she [Rita] Siri’s niece?

A: When Siri showed up on our iPhones in 2011, it really kickstarted a revolution, in the same way that the Spinning Jenny loom started the industrial revolution over 250 years ago.

I reckon all AI bots are related to Siri...a bit like how most of the monarchs are Queen Victoria’s grandchildren.

Q: How has Rita helped to change the way your clients do business?

A: I think the most important impact is that it has taken agents away from the digital interface and put them back at the customer interface, but with more information at speed than ever before.

Q: Artificial intelligence is for real. And it's helping to enable today’s real estate professionals. What are your thoughts?

A: I think we are seeking to resolve some of the issues that technology created for agents. The traditional software route has tended to transform the real estate agent from a people-person, to a screen operator.

Not only did that put a glass interface between the agent and the customer, but I think it has done a lot to undermine the human element in the relationship, and perhaps ultimately in the transaction.

AI is very different than traditional software in that it seeks to enable the human with information, rather than disempower them with convoluted software workflows. The potential of AI is far beyond chatbots, in fact, chatbots are just one small part of AI – a data-powered way to connect humans to information using conversation rather than forms.

Artificial intelligence allows a computer to mimic “thinking” by giving it steps to think with, which can be considered an algorithm. When you combine that with the capability of automation, to act through triggers that don’t rely on a human user, and then you add in relevant data networks, you start to get something like the capability of a real employee without any of the pesky limitations that humans have like the need to eat, sleep, recreate, or do one thing at a time.

Q: Leveraging data and insights are at the crux of Rita's skillset, so we know how crafty she is at using learnings to make business suggestions for her users. So how important is it for the real estate industry to use this data to make the right business decisions?

A: If you were to ask a human for help solving any problem, you are limited to the amount of experience that a human has. Experience is really the amount of examples someone has been exposed to, of a particular problem that makes them expert.

A group of examples, can be understood as data. Large data sets, or big data, provide not only many more examples of solutions than a human can have in personal experience, but can also be analysed in aggregate to see what trends and insights emerge from the collective experience.

What computers can also do at speed, which is beyond the processing limitations of humans, is network those large sets of data in order to answer more complex questions, or to create an augmented and context-rich prediction or suggestion, and the language we use to talk about that is an “opportunity”.

For example, our platform analyses vast amounts of data from the CRM, the market, and so forth, and suggests contacts to an agent to connect with on a particular day, with a suggestion of what they might talk about.

Q: I’ll leave you with this: When we look at the technology of today, can we say confidently that it's adding enough value?

A: The technology of today – that is connected and deeply integrated with an ability to share information across systems – is helping agents to consolidate their information about customers into a core system, which acts as a single source of truth.

Previously, this information was fractured across multiple different sources and with fragmented data, you can only hope to provide fragmented services. And that is not what anyone is settling for anymore.

 

We Sat Down with a PropTech Influencer who Created a Robot to Empower Real Estate Professionals. Heres our Conversation_CTA

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