Friend or foe? What the ‘robot takeover’ means for us

Some people are panicking that they could lose their jobs. Are we right to be afraid?

Reform, the think tank, last month released a report stating that 250,000 public sector jobs could be replaced by robots and computers within the next 15 years. You’re probably sitting at your desk right now, wondering whether your seat could soon be taken by a robot.   

It’s important to recognise that this is not necessarily negative news. A recent McKinsey survey estimates that 60 per cent of all occupations have at least 30 per cent automatable activities, whilst less than 1 per cent are fully automatable – job roles will undoubtedly change, but very few can be fully replaced. That said, the impact of automation is not limited to the public sector, but has the potential to touch many of our lives in the near future.

As computers learn to perform human tasks with greater efficiency, their introduction into everyday jobs is growing at a rapid pace. Local supermarkets have implemented automated self-service tills, call centers are now staffed by voice control technology, and companies such as IPSoft have even created a bot called Amelia to provide solutions for customers over the phone. 

For businesses, the benefits of robotics are clear, such as improved efficiency, increased speed and cheaper scalability. But at an individual level, some people are panicking that they could lose their jobs. Are we right to be afraid?

Increasing jobs?

Looking at the data behind job losses in conjunction with technological innovation, we can see that jobs have in fact increased. For example, the number of computer programmers in 1970 in the US was 160,613 – now, it’s nearly three million. Another example is engineers – in 1900 there were 38,000, yet despite the increase in automation, jobs within the sector have exceeded three million. But, as is often the way, there is also contradicting data. According to Forrester, 11 per cent of jobs will disappear  by 2021, with a five per cent rate of job creation resulting in a net loss of six per cent. This doesn’t reflect the changing demographics however as according to OECD, the working age population is shrinking in most European countries so the net impact could technically be smaller.

Reform’s report warns about possible public sector job loss, however an area where we have in fact seen successful AI implementation is within the private sector. Automation has been a big player in terms of its integration into the workforce and is also being used for identifying both faults and resolutions. Now, naturally, it has hit the public sector – it has just taken longer to reach due to the layers of governance surrounding it. 

Whilst some of today’s jobs could change or even disappear, complementary tech focused roles will continue to emerge. The World Economic Forum estimates that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will work in completely new jobs that don’t exist yet. What’s more, the public sector is fortunate to have the learnings from the private sector to ensure best practice is followed. Think back to the cloud. When the notion of keeping documents, essentially, ‘in the air’ was introduced, there was a lack of trust and a lot of scepticism. Today, nearly every single person uses an element of the cloud, every day. 

AI has hit many sectors and is working alongside humans to accelerate and improve processes. Currently, it is the responsibility of tech companies to outline the scope of what AI can do and define frameworks people can use to make sure it is safe. 

Relevance of technology

However, by the end of the decade it is likely that all organisations will have started some form of AI program. Consequently, we are seeing discussions around the regulation and legislation of robotic development increase. Last month, European lawmakers called for EU-wide legislation to regulate the rise of robots, including a recommendation for an ethical framework for the development, deployment and liability for the actions of robots, or those who own them. 

Drone ownership and use is an area which has received a huge amount of scrutiny over the past few years, the most recent example being the introduction of autonomous taxi drones in Dubai. In light of their growing popularity, the Civil Aviation Authority has had to bring in new laws to force users to register and take a safety test before use. What’s more, Ministers have also implemented ‘no-fly zones’ in an attempt to regulate the environment and locations where this technology is used. With autonomous machines becoming more and more commonplace, we are likely to see more stringent regulation put in place – and in time, this will also happen with regard to AI. 

Whilst there are now more occupations where assistance from computing systems or ‘bots’ is relevant, this does not necessarily result in the loss of jobs for humans. It merely reflects the development of the world of work and the increasing relevance and use of technology in our day to day lives. There is no question that innovation and adoption of technologies such as AI is on the up and will be a major disrupter in years to come. Let’s face it - the only way companies can compete with emerging economies is through digital automation. 

Whilst there may never be agreement from technologists, who see the potential benefits of increased automation and deeper analytical capabilities, and economists, who analyse the social and economic impact, automation and AI is without a doubt redefining jobs.

Exciting times

But then again, our careers and jobs are constantly evolving. We will never need to stop learning new skills, but it is now more important than ever to remain relevant to both our current jobs and more importantly, for future roles. In ten years’ time there will be job titles we couldn’t even imagine now, just as many of today’s jobs didn’t exist ten years ago. For me, that’s quite exciting. 

Amidst the speculation and worry that the development of technology can create, it is time to face up to the fact this will only gain momentum. And whilst James Bessen, an economist at the Boston University School of Law, predicts this will not be a ‘sharp break from history’, but instead a ‘difficult transition’, we must embrace rather than reject it. It is important to consider the opportunities both now and in the future, to plan accordingly and make the most of technology’s abilities. Can you even be sure this was written by a human?

Laurent Roussel, Business Technology Architect at CA Technologies
Image Credit: Tatiana Shepeleva / Shutterstock