Working Life

Will a robot steal your job?


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By Martin Watters

Thursday, 19 November 2015

IF you’ve ever glanced at your microwave and wondered if it will one day replace you at work, the answer is yes, it probably will.

Well that’s only if you’re an accountant, driver, secretary, factory worker, pilot, doctor, sales assistant, scientist, real estate agent or surgeon.

These are all professions at risk of being replaced by increasingly better technology.

Last week the Bank of England’s chief economist declared that automation would replace almost half the jobs in Britain – a “third industrial revolution” fuelled by the information age, creating:

“…A hollowing-out of employment, a widening distribution of wages and a fall in labour’s income share,” the reserve bank’s chief economist Andrew Haldane, told a Trades Union Congress meeting.

Will your job be replaced by technology? See Working Life’s list below

In his speech, Haldane said perhaps the Luddites had “a point after all”, in reference to the early industrial revolution activists who smashed factory machinery in protest of their oppressive working conditions.

Let that sink in for a moment… a reserve bank economist suggesting the fears of radical machine-breakers were probably valid, that’s how serious the situation is expected to become.

But unlike the first industrial revolution when improvements in machinery helped replace low-skill manual labour, the next evolution could also replace highly skilled professions requiring years of tertiary education, such as lawyers and surgeons.

“Technology appears to be resulting in faster, wider and deeper degrees of hollowing-out than in the past,” Haldane said. “Why? Because 20th-century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones too. The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened.”

The outlook for Australia is no different, where automation is already upon us.

Less than a month before the chief economist’s speech, Rio Tinto announced that all of its iron ore trucks at two of its Pilbara mines in Western Australia were now driverless.

The mining company boasted the new system, where almost 70 automated trucks were now overseen by someone in a Perth office 1200km away, had boosted productivity by 12 per cent.

Rio was also currently trialling unmanned trains and robotic drills so that in the not-too-distant future, automation would handle iron ore mining from pit to port.


The outlook for more skilled professions is just as dire thanks to improvements in artificial intelligence, Haldane concurs, with AI creating a greater likelihood that “the space remaining for uniquely human skills could shrink further”.

“If these visions were to be realised, however futuristic this sounds, the labour market patterns of the past three centuries would shift to warp speed,” Haldane continued.

“If the option of skilling up is no longer available, this increases the risk of large scale un- or under-employment. The wage premium for those occupying skilled positions could explode, further widening wage differentials.”

“On this view, the tree would be so thoroughly hollowed-out that it may no longer be able to support itself.”

Just how soon are we talking?

Tech investor and former Microsoft executive Daniel Petre this year predicted that AI would be able to do everything humans could do, within 30 years or sooner.

“Anyone in a driving job is toast, they’ll all be driverless cars and trucks,” Petre said. “(GPs) will be impacted by big-data analytics in diagnosis and surgeons will be impacted by advanced robotics surgery.”

Some workers are already feeling the pressure of the coming automation apocalypse with employers expecting robotic-like efficiency from their human employees.

A British trade union has accused Amazon – a company proudly using ground-breaking technology to increase productivity – for treating factory staff as “above average” robots with workloads causing them physical and mental illness.

Amazon is trialling robotic shelves, packers and sorters in its warehouses and this year made headlines by calling for a special airspace zone so it can deliver parcels to customers by autonomous drone some day.


So what can workers do to prepare for this dystopian nightmare? For a start, get a job that robots find difficult.

Cost, efficiency, repetition of tasks and a human touch are all factors.

For pilots, computers already handle much of the flying of commercial airlines so the final hurdle remaining for full automation is passenger fear of person-less flying.

Doctors and surgeons are expensive to train, are well-paid and are therefore ripe for replacement, technologists warn. Nurses on the other hand should be safe with their wide variety of skills and bedside manner.

But not even lawyers are safe, as much of the mundane tasks involved in conveyancing, writing wills and employment contracts are likely to be contracted out to computers.

Futurist HR consultant Rob Davidson predicts jobs that rely on coaching, counselling and caring will become the next boom sectors.

“There will always be jobs where humans prefer to deal with humans. Social intelligence is one key skill… defined as social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, assisting and caring for others,” he told News Corp media recently.

“Empathy in particular has been highlighted as the critical skillset of the 21st century. It is unlikely robots will be able to mimic empathy any time soon in either ours or our grandchildren’s lifetimes.”

Economically, how this jobs boom will displace the inequality caused by the massive numbers of workers expected to be replaced by robots remains to be seen.

Until then society will need to think about what role work will have in the societies of the not-too-distant future, Andrew Haldane says.

“The key question is what happens next? A re-run of the 19th century, with productivity gains eventually boosting wages and the labour share? Or, different than in the past, a permanent re-shaping of the labour landscape?”


Jobs robots will replace

Accountants, auditors, cashiers, tellers, telemarketers, drivers, pilots, real estate agents, secretaries, machinists, doctors, sales assistants, scientists, surgeons, data entry clerks, umpires, models, farm labourers, cooks, paralegals.


Careers that are safe (for now)

Hairdressers, teachers, nurses, writers, musicians, dancers, mental health counsellors, social workers, photographers, chiropractors, dentists, designers, physical therapists, civil engineers, architects, pharmacists, and of course chief executives.


Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


Creative Commons License
We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. andsoitgoes
    Friday, 20 November, 2015 at 10:34 am · Reply

    Jobs to be replaced, yes you can add teacher to that list, alot of learning is online now, worst move to be made having interactive white boards in the classroom, it’s just as simple as, ‘hit-the-go-button,’ and Bob’s your uncle, I’d heard, P.E & Music is to go online. Lets bring in the human element-connection to interaction and exchange of ideas and information. Bugger the computers/robots, I don’t know what their thinking? do you?

  2. w.schoondergang
    Friday, 20 November, 2015 at 5:35 pm · Reply

    What will the robot spend in the shop or are all items made for no cost at all if we are to keep this capitalist system the individual must have a job otherwise how is he going to become a consumer ? . This those not make sense to me the whole system is going to be out of balance and we will be going down the tube in a hurry .

  3. George King
    Friday, 20 November, 2015 at 5:38 pm · Reply

    60 years ago my late father spoke to a time and motion expert about automation and what would happen to those displaced by it. Answer, “we’ll give em teaspoons to dig up the roads”. At the moment our govt doesn’t have a better idea. Maybe we get back to machine wrecking, Ned Ludd come back – all is forgiven.

  4. bill boyd
    Saturday, 21 November, 2015 at 2:47 pm · Reply

    The article by Martin is thought provoking at its best
    I consider that we should clearly understand the difference between artificial intelligence (referred hereafter as AI) and organic intelligence (hereafter referred to as OI)
    AI is bound by parameters set by OI and the machine with AI cannot operate outside those parameters. The controls of intelligence is contained within the yes/no loop and to expand that loop requires an input of OI
    Now compare the OI which is operating within set parameters. (Education, culture, past experience)
    These parameters are the boundaries of greed, empathy, honesty, loyalty, honor, the desire for knowledge, the desire to control, the desire to punish, the desire not to accept responsibility for the results of actions. So OI is programming AI with an imperfect set of parameters, so, if AI reaches the level of conscious ability, society will be exchanging one set of controls for another more inhumane set of controls
    SO the talk is of AI taking over all the jobs being performed by OI — Well and good but who is going to repair the failed AI if all the OI is lost from being made obsolete
    Society is already being taught by AI because all professors from all teaching institutions are only repeating what is already proven to be acceptable (the old yes/no loop of AI). To expand on that reasoning, many decades ago companies considered society as vital to their existence and as a result OI was employed to the benefit of the company and society
    Now it is different because the OI is being trained by the AI, in that society has no place and profit is the all-important factor that is the driving force. The loop here is yes—profit at all costs,- no , do not care that if society is not a participant there will be no profit so there will be no need to run the AI so the no part of the decision is disregarded. The faulty part of OI loop thinking. Loop thinking is for all the corporate CEO’s and global thinkers. They have missed the yes/no decision point in the OI thinking where it has become AI thinking because it there are no workers, there is no money, there is no consumption, therefore there is no need for production and the end result there will be no need for them as well. Not a valid statement it may be said. Well, let OI point to the towns that are shutting down when the management moves to improve profits, look at the job losses and the income losses that restrict the purchase of products that are made by AI, look at whole societies that are affected when jobs done by OI are moved off shore to a lesser OI society and the cultural upheaval that occurs in those societies
    So to sum up, everything that OI is involved with, is contained within the faulty parameters and when other OI speaks out against those parameters as being favoring a portion of the OI, then that part of society is demonized and ridiculed and said to be against progress. The OI that programs the AI is implementing the same OI parameters into that AI so society ends up with thoughtless OI in the form of AI
    Basically the difference is this– AI programmed by thoughtless, selfish, ignorant OI results in thoughtless, brainless AI and society will fail because of it
    The end point is — Rubbish in- Rubbish out –and AI will not know the difference, a difference that OI is rapidly losing sight of

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