The robots are coming – How the world of work is about to change

Joe Svetlik

Monday 10 August 2015

Robots are coming to the workplace. And they’re not just taking over menial jobs, soon they’ll be advanced enough to carry out skilled tasks that have been the preserve of white-collar workers.

The idea of robots taking our jobs isn’t new. Since the 1950s, sci-fi films have been littered with robot workers taking care of all kinds of menial tasks, from driving our cars to cleaning our homes and workplaces. But recent research shows they can go a lot further than that.

According to a 2013 paper by Michael A. Osborne and Carl Benedict Frey from Oxford University, 47 per cent of jobs in America could be replaced by robots over the next 20 years. But, as that statistic suggests, it’s not just the most menial jobs that are at risk. The list includes financial and sports reporters, online marketers, mathematical technicians, insurance underwriters, watch repairers and tax preparers.

Why these jobs? They involve a high degree of analysis and routine, which are both areas in which computers perform strongly. Thanks to complex algorithms, artificial intelligence is advancing into areas of the labour market previously thought untouchable.

The natural tendency is to worry. “The droids are coming for our jobs” is a familiar refrain. And anyone who’s seen the pace of technological advance in recent years – not to mention the sheer intellectual heft of IBM’s Watson supercomputer – will no doubt have felt a pang of doubt regarding their career prospects.

Algorithms in the office

While the jobs mentioned above have a 99 per cent likelihood of being replaced by machines – or technological unemployment, to use the official term – the picture isn’t as bleak as it sounds. For a start, the idea of an office run completely by machines is a long way off. That’s because unstructured environments are difficult to automate. There are different floor surfaces, different widths in corridors to navigate and lots of differently-sized objects to interact with. Environments like warehouses, hospitals and airports, however, are much more structured and hence easier to automate.

Indeed, this can be seen from where robot workers are already being used. Autonomous vehicles can navigate busy roads, automated checkouts are increasingly found in supermarkets across Europe, while online sales algorithms are becoming scarily accurate in predicting what else we might like to buy. The QC-Bot has been dubbed a Mars rover for hospitals – it drives around delivering medicine, materials and meals, though its bedside manner could do with some work.

That’s not to say the office is completely safe from robotic colleagues/rivals (depending on how you look at it). In the 1950s typing pool, social elements like face-to-face contact were thought to be part of the job. But when word processors arrived, those social elements weren’t deemed valuable enough to save the typing pool, and it went the way of the dodo. Who’s to say the same won’t happen with the office, and that it’ll be redesigned around robotic workers?

Advantages for the workplace

Greater technological integration stands to benefit businesses. Because of the falling price of computing components, plus their increasing power, machines are cheaper than human workers. They don’t need holidays, or to go home and sleep at night – with careful maintenance, they can work around the clock.

As we’ve seen, algorithms are more proficient than humans at certain tasks, like sifting large amounts of data to find certain information. They also aren’t prone to human heuristics and biases. For example, they don’t get grumpy when they’re hungry and let that affect their work.

Less at risk

Not every job is at risk from the robots. Computers are very bad at creative tasks, and have very low levels of social intelligence. Therefore jobs in the creative sphere, and those that involve meeting and caring for people, presenting information and a high level of persuasion are less at risk from technological unemployment.

Other high-skilled jobs are also safer. As a general rule, according to Osborne and Frey, the more you earn, the safer your job is.

Utopia or dystopia?

Experts are divided over what this will mean for the workplace. Some jobs will undoubtedly be replaced by machines and, at the moment, there’s no word on what will happen to those displaced. Some see a utopia whereby they’re freed to do other things with their time, such as advance humankind’s knowledge and brave new frontiers in the sciences. Others foresee mass unemployment.

Neelie Kroes, the former vice president of the European Commission, has asked the robotics industry to “clear up the uncertainty and mistrust” surrounding robots in the workplace, and to reassure the public that this won’t lead to huge job losses.

All that we know for now is that the robots are coming. And if the last few decades of technological advancement are anything to go by, their impact will cause a seismic shift in how we both think about and go about our work.

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