When will a robot steal your job?


Fiction often provides valuable opportunities for a cathartic release of fears about future possibilities: so many books and movies seem to have prepared us for the time when many of our daily tasks will move to automated hands and brains. It is a question of when not if, according to some ICT commentators.

Ted Wasserman's January 2014 Mashable article includes an assertion from jobs and career site Glassdoor, which has singled out 10 jobs that are being replaced by machines. The 10 jobs are: bank teller, cashier, receptionist, telephone operator, mail carrier, travel agent, typist, newspaper reporter, data entry associate, and telemarketer. Automation may claim as many as 47 percent of current jobs by 2033, according to a recent Oxford University study.

"In the future, it's very likely that many of today's jobs, from cashier to teller, will be automated and the need for real people to take on these roles won't be needed as technology will catch up and take on these responsibilities," says Scott Dobroski, Glassdoor community expert. "Themes people should be aware of include low-skilled jobs being likely replaced by automation first, such as telemarketer or typist, whereas jobs requiring creativity or a social aspect to them are not as at risk."

Zafar Anjum in his February 2014 Computerworld article Will robots change the face of manufacturing in Asia? finds that Asian manufacturers especially in the automotive sector are looking to robots and 3D technology rationalise many parts of the production process and expect to slash costs. He asked Shermine Gotfredsen, Business Development Manager of the Denmark's Universal Robots, what will happen to the human workers in Asian manufacturing plants. "We will need to move them to the skilled labour category. So the trend will be to re-train these people who are doing repetitive tasks day in and day out (to operate machines) and equip them with other skills."

In another instance, a February 2014 Global Editors Network article on news journalism by Laure Nouraout said that "sports, finance, natural disasters, and data: these are the fields that robot journalism has already touched. A number of media organisations-and even the CIA-are investing and innovating in this new information-gathering technology." When it comes to immediate sharing of such news, Journalism.co.uk's Sarah Marshall points out that robots and automation provide a useful function when it comes to immediacy.

When we review our daily tasks we have to agree that many aspects of our daily roles across most industry sectors comprise a significant number of routine tasks. The theory is automation should free us up "to get on with bigger and better things" so goes the argument. And yet, there is always a sneaking suspicion that the machines we are creating may just turn out to be much better, that little bit smarter at most things than us.

Some of us may take small comfort at the theory that we won't have to worry about it for at least a 100 years: Wired writer Angela Watercutter writing in her February 2014 Robocop article said that apart from the moral and ethical question of police robots, our battery technology would not be up to the job for a century. She quoted an electrical engineer Charles Higgins, who said: "That's one serious limitation that our technology is not approaching yet. In order to do a real RoboCop like you see in the movie, you need to have a very compact power source that's going to power all those motors all day-it doesn't look like RoboCop has to plug in every hour."

Seriously though, how should we be preparing for the inevitable: do we change careers? Data scientists will certainly be in demand. A journalist, or IT manager, for instance, may have to get serious, writing that killer game, screenplay or novel. The real question to consider is how to make our contributions increasingly relevant and inimitable by any robot. This challenge to evolve our hard and soft skills up the value chain will become increasingly urgent, it seems.

- AvantiKumar, Editor, Computerworld Malaysia & Malaysia Country Correspondent for ENM Channels