Will a robot steal your job?
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.
— Heather Stewart (@heatherstewart3) November 12, 2015
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.