Will a robot take your job?

Machines are replacing people from the kitchen to the “dark factory”, but there are other factors which will keep humans in the workplace of the future

Professor Peter Gahan, Director, Centre for Workplace Leadership, University of Melbourne

Professor Peter Gahan

Published 15 April 2016

Technology is invading our lives – from the way we order a meal, entertain ourselves, find a job, even how we find love. And much of this has happened during the last 10 years. The first iPhone was released in 2007. It was the beginning of mobile apps – small scale, specific-purpose software to play a game, order a meal, read your emails.

And now, we are told, we are entering the age of the smart machine. A smart machine that may take your job. But is the future of jobs really going to be determined by technology? New smart technologies are now used to automate work and replace people with robots. Yet, there are a host of other factors likely to be just as important in driving what work will look like and what jobs will be available for humans.

Smart technologies are now being increasingly used across many industries and workplaces. In manufacturing, we are seeing the emergence of a new phenomenon – “dark factories”. “Dark” because these are fully automated factories and robots don’t need lights.

Dark factories, which need neither humans or light, have emerged in some industries. Picture: www.bmw-werk-leipzig.de

In Japan, robotic chefs are now replacing short-order cooks in commercial kitchens. On many dairy farms, cows are herded and milked without being touched by a human hand. On our ports, most containers are loaded on to ships by automatic cranes.

And in the near future we face the prospect of driverless cars replacing thousands of taxi drivers and truck drivers.

Even more radical is the idea machines will start talking to each other and make decisions for us. Over the next decade there will be more machines using the internet than people – a lot more.

Smart technologies

These trends have – quite rightly – caused consternation about the future. Smart technologies are eating their way up the hierarchy of skill, displacing people with machines to do more complex, higher skilled, work.

In a recent and controversial study, two Oxford University researchers reported an analysis which suggested that almost one in two jobs in the United States could be replaced by machines over the next decade or so.

Similar analysis has been produced for Australia, with many of the jobs losses predicted to be concentrated in regional and rural towns.

Robotic chefs are replacing cooks in some Japanese commercial kitchens. Picture: www.arstechnica.co.uk

If these predictions are correct they suggest a worrying future – greater inequality and social division. There will be those that do well because they invent the technologies and own the machines that run off them – or because they have a high-skilled job. And those who don’t will face a bleaker future. Some cities will prosper because they attract businesses offering jobs, while others face decline as the jobs disappear. These scenarios have some basis in evidence, and should be of considerable concern to politicians, businesses and communities.

So where will the jobs of the future come from?

Three big mistakes

While these predictions about automation and what jobs are on the chopping block may be correct, they tell us only part of the picture. This view makes three big mistakes in unpacking and predicting the future.

First, it assumes we have no choices over how we use and develop technologies. We still need human intelligence and judgement to design and operate smart. Engineers and designers are also producing human-centred automation, which considers where humans can often do tasks or make better judgements than machines, and designs automation around these strengths. So, we have choices about how we design new technologies and how we apply them – often in more productive ways than full automation. This may be one reason why fully driverless cars may not become reality.

Second, it only tells us where the jobs are likely to be destroyed. It tells us nothing about what types of jobs are created by the development of new technologies. There are a host of both highly skilled and less skilled jobs that are being created – thanks to technology – that 10 years ago did not exist: App developers, big data analysts, UX designer, personal brand manager, digital content analyst, drone pilot, to name a few. And there will be many more new types of jobs that we just can’t predict today.

Driverless tractors doing the crop spraying in a Texas vineyard. Picture: ASIrobots/Wikimedia

Third, and most significantly, technology is not the only factor dictating what jobs will be created in the future. For one, the world’s population is ageing and more educated than it has ever been. This will lead to accelerated growth in jobs caring for older people. Older people, often with life savings, demand different goods, services and experiences beyond health and medical care: social engagement, entertainment, tourism, and ongoing opportunities to learn and have unique experiences. Few of these jobs will be automated as they rely on human to human interaction.

Concerns over global warming and the environment are also predicted to generate new jobs related to managing our increasingly valuable national resources. And it’s not just our forests, oceans and mountains. Cities and suburbs are also under growing pressure as our main cities grow. Both Sydney and Melbourne will soon be home to more than 5 million residents. Both are plagued by congestion, growing density and pressure on public land use. There will be growing pressure on regional cities to absorb more of our growing population, thereby spreading the challenge of designing sustainable cities.

Jobs like urban planning will still require human skills and knowledge. Picture: Pixabay

These developments are also predicted to be associated with growing job demands in diverse occupations, such as urban planning, construction, social work, transport and environmental science. These jobs will require human skills and knowledge that are difficult to automate reliably

So, perhaps it’s time to gain a little more perspective about what the future holds. Technology will be an important factor and will transform jobs and industries. But as we have seen in the past, new sources of jobs are also likely to emerge – some skilled, some not so skilled. Some will be interesting, secure and rewarding; others less secure and dull.

Our challenge will be to ensure we make this transition to ensure that nobody is left behind during what will be, as our Prime Minister keeps reminding us, an exciting time to be an Australian.

The Future of Work Conference (20-21 April) will gather industry experts to discuss new and emerging workplace trends. The Conference is an initiative from the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne.

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