Date posted: 1/12/2016 10 min read

Robot restructure — Will robots take your job?

Just how soon could your job be carried out by a robot?

In brief

  • While technological advances displaced some work, historically they have been net creators of jobs
  • There are already medical robots that can analyse blood samples and perform surgery
  • Accountancy roles that involve giving advice and interpreting financial data are the safest

Take a moment to consider your job. What do you do, in your role, that only a human can do? Chances are that list is diminishing. And ten years from now, what job will you be doing? How are you future proofing yourself — or guiding your children — and making choices for the work world that will be, not the work world that exists now?

With the advancement of robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), job losses appear inevitable. But many believe the advancements create more jobs than they render void. While many low-skilled jobs can be automated, people will still need to operate the machines. This requires a higher level of skill, and therefore a higher pay grade. So the idea of robots working with people, rather than replacing them, is becoming increasingly popular.

And some jobs will surely always need a “human touch”, and the level of judgement and intuition — let alone discretion and ethical behaviour — that only a bona fide person can deliver. Think midwives, doctors, psychologists, teachers, police officers and judges. Let alone farmers or vets. And would we watch television or go to the cinema if all the actors or performers were robots?

Good bot/bad bot

According to US-based “fact tank” Pew Research Center, most respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet survey thought robotics and AI would permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025. They anticipated this would have huge implications for a range of industries including health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance.

On the positive side, technology will reduce everyday drudgery and work will become more positive and better benefit society, respondents said. And while technological advances displaced certain types of work, historically they have been a net creator of jobs. People will adapt to the changes by inventing new types of work, and taking advantage of abilities that only humans possess. But while the impacts from automation have been felt mostly in the blue-collar sectors until now, the next round of innovation is likely to change the face of white-collar work. Respondents expressed concern that the education system is not properly preparing people for work of the future.

Hosbotality

The advancements in robotics and AI are staggering, with jobs in previously “safe” industries — like food — looking increasingly threatened. At an industrial trade fair in Germany earlier this year a new automated kitchen was unveiled, with a robochef whose creators, UK-based Moley Robotics, claim it can cook like a seasoned chef.

The robot has a set of fully articulated hands which can reproduce human movements. It was “trained” by a winner of BBC Masterchef, Tim Anderson, who chose a tricky crab bisque dish to test the robot’s skills. While cooking the dish in a studio, Anderson was recorded in 3D. Every detail and action was then translated into digital movement using tailormade algorithms. The robot’s excellent replication of the dish work reportedly left Anderson stunned.

Some experts caution that if — or when — robots become more intelligent than humans they could destroy humanity, be it from evil motives, or perhaps just due to their lack of common sense.

Service jobs are also under threat. This month Japan is expected to open its first hotel heavily staffed by robots — at check in, delivering room service, carrying bags and cleaning rooms. The Henn Na, or “strange hotel”, hopes to be the most efficient, modern hotel in the world.

And a humanoid robot recently started working at Tokyo’s Mitsukoshi department store, greeting and interacting with customers. It has been developed by Toshiba, is programmed to do Japanese sign language and can be programmed to speak other languages.

By 2017, more industrial robots will be operating in China’s production plants than in the European Union or North America, according to the International Federation of Robotics. China’s manufacturing sector has seen increased use of robot power as a response to a shortage of workers, (manual jobs have fallen out of favour with the country’s young people), rising wages, high staff turnover, and as a way to cut production costs.

This won’t hurt a bot

Robotic advancements continue in medicine and there are already medical robots that can analyse blood samples and perform surgery.

Robots are being developed as simulated patients for training purposes at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

Scotland recently opened its billion-pound South Glasgow University Hospital, a state-of-the-art facility with self-service check-in machines and robots that deliver linen and other goods via a network of underground tunnels.

A newly-opened San Francisco medical centre boasts the world’s largest fleet of free-roaming hospital robots which haul around food, medication, blood samples, biohazardous waste and other supplies. They’ve been installed in an effort to reduce workplace injuries, and let caregivers focus on providing care.

Advancements in AI are embraced by transhumanists — adherents of an intellectual and cultural movement that aims to eliminate biological death. It’s a goal some believe can be achieved before the middle of this century by expanding human capabilities through technology.

A central aim for transhumanists is self-preservation — safeguarding one’s own existence above all else. Supporters include robotics experts, scientists, AI proponents and futurists. Transhumanists support developments such as brain implants, gene therapies, robotic hearts, bionic limbs, designer babies and artificial intelligence. Ideas around beating death include uploading one’s consciousness to a computer, replacing a heart with an artificial one, and cryogenically freezing oneself.

In 2014 in the US the Transhumanist Party was established, complete with a 2016 Presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan. Last year Google’s Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil made headlines for his assertions that computers will be smarter than people by 2029. He is known as father of the modern transhumanist movement and takes more than 100 pills a day as part of his quest for good health and the longevity that will enable him to be around long enough to take advantage of the scientific breakthroughs he’s anticipating. He has popularised the idea of “the singularity” — the moment in the future when people and machines will converge.

Danger! Danger!

But with the advancements in robotics, or AI, come new threats — not just to jobs, but to humanity. Some experts caution that if — or when — robots become more intelligent than humans they could destroy humanity, be it from evil motives, or perhaps just due to their lack of common sense.

Then there is the issue of robotic advancements in warfare. Amnesty International has called for a pre-emptive ban on the development, stockpiling, transfer, deployment and use of fully autonomous weapons systems (AWS or killer robots) — lethal weapons that don’t need to be controlled by humans that can select their own targets and shoot them or blow them up, by themselves.

There are groups and institutions dedicated to mitigating the risks of highly developed artificial intelligence. The Future of Life Institute is a volunteer-run research and outreach organisation “working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity”. Its team includes some big names, including world famous physicist Stephen Hawking and actor Alan Alda, who is listed as a “science communicator”. The institute focuses on potential risks from the development of human-level AI and it favours increased precautions around the further development of AI.

Will a robot take your job?

The development of robots and AI has implications for chartered accountants. Professor Wai Yeap, Director of the Centre for AI Research at AUT University, believes chartered accountants, be they business development specialists, CFOs, auditors, financial controllers, will still be carrying out valid roles in 2025.

“However, by 2025, I don’t think the nature of these jobs would have changed much other than the fact that they can run more programmes to assist their work. They will find that they can do their job smarter and faster and this should be good for them.”

Professor Yeap says roles that involve giving advice and interpreting financial data are the safest, while those under threat are jobs that simply package data or information for others.

Reassuringly, he says at this point in time, robotics researchers would not be interested in developing a robot to do any of the roles above.

“This is because these tasks do not require an embodied program. However, if you look far into the future, robots will replace humans,” Yeap says.

He has a tip for young graduates to ensure they remain employable in the labour market of the future.

Roles that involve giving advice and interpreting financial data are the safest, while those under threat are jobs that simply package data or information for others.

“Engage with any new computer program being developed for your field — the better you know how to utilise them, the better you are in coping with the future.”

So while your own job might be safe for many years to come, who will your colleagues be in the future? If they are robots, on the plus side, you won’t inherit their workload when they are on leave. And they won’t leave messes in the communal kitchen.

But it’ll be harder to strike up water cooler talk, with the usual safe topics of the weather, holidays, kids and sport ruled out. And a robot is unlikely to join you for lunch or attend the office Christmas party, let alone shout morning tea on their birthday, or sign the leaving card that’s doing the rounds, as yet another human being is replaced by one of their kind.

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.

Search related topics