Can you teach a robot to wolf whistle?

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The Independent Online
SO, AUF WIEDERSEHEN, pet, to the wolf whistle and those low-slung, buttock-baring trousers. A new generation of robot builders is to herald the death of the traditional brickie.

The robots will be able to climb the sides of buildings to connect the pre-fabricated blocks of new structures for the houses and offices that will appear early next century. And they won't even need to take a tea- break.

The demise of the builder's bottom is the brain child of the Construction Industry Board - the umbrella group for housebuilders, architects, engineers and bricklayers. It has drawn up plans to revolutionise house building over the next 20 years in response to the demand for more environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient designs.

The plans, outlined in a report, reflect the rapid expansion of technology within Britain's largest industry, which employs 1.4 million people and has an annual turnover of pounds 58bn - or 8 per cent of the nation's GDP.

It is a futuristic vision of a building industry "employing" robots controlled by computers 10,000 times more powerful than those used today. The computers will instruct them where to pick up materials, where to take them and how to assemble them - with no demands for overtime pay.

"This is not rocket science. It's very close to becoming reality," said Derek Rees, operations manager for the board.

The use of "robot navvies", as the CIB calls them, will allow developers to cut costs and reduce the number of accidents in an industry where the death rate is four times higher than the national average.

The industry launched a campaign last week aimed at reducing the number of workers and members of the public killed in accidents on building sites. In 1998, 74 builders were killed, according to the Health and Safety Executive, more than half of them in falls. The report notes that robots are "less likely to miss their footing than people and do not need as much protection".

Some developers are already exploring the use of driverless piledrivers to fit the foundations for offices and homes, navigated by using the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) - which can pinpoint locations on Earth from satellite radio transmissions.

"These machines can be told to drill and bash where they are meant to drill and bash," said Mr Rees. "Even though things are a lot safer than they were, robots will be able to work in potentially hazardous situations."

But there could be a place, in the new robotic age, for an elite band of master builders. "There will always be a role for the traditional craftsman, particularly in the refurbishment of old buildings," said Mr Rees. "They will have to learn a whole range of more flexible skills. The technology will be there. It's a question of whether firms are ready to embrace it."

The CIB's report outlines several other eye-catching developments. Modern technology will create "smart" homes and offices that will be able to insulate themselves in winter and even mend themselves when cracks start to appear.

New buildings will have sensors which will inform owners when they develop a fault and may even be able to secrete resins to repair themselves. "If you inject concrete with carbon dioxide it takes on a plastic quality which allows it more elasticity and helps it to resist structural shifts and earthquakes," said Mr Rees.

Scientists are also working on a living organism or "skin" for wall cavities which will grow hair for insulation in winter and shed it in the summer.

But builders working on developments in London's Canary Wharf were sceptical. "I don't care how clever they make robots," said Patsey Hester, a carpenter who has worked in the industry for 30 years. "I've seen so many things that were supposed to do the work of men and they haven't delivered."

Joe Kelley, a site agent for Lovell, said logistical difficulties stood in the way of robots. "It's the nature of the industry that each project is different. It's very difficult to make a machine that can self-sufficiently walk around a muddy construction site."

The Housebuilders' Federation, which represents the builders of 90 per cent of new homes in England and Wales, is equally doubtful. "It will be a major challenge for a machine to replace the good old brickie," said the spokesman David Mote. "I can't see it in the near future."

The new designs will also meet opposition from mortgage lenders, added Mr Mote. "Lenders are not keen to hand over money if housing technology is new. They worry if the loan goes pear-shaped and they have to repossess, they won't be able to re-sell the house."