An article from The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s E&T magazine
From the robotic mechanics, soldiers, doctors and – most famously – translators in ‘Star Wars’, to the spider-like police spies in ‘The Minority Report’, dystopian films and books have long warned that robots will take our jobs. As it turns out, fact is becoming stranger than fiction in the 21st century, with experts warning we may be twiddling our non-metallic thumbs within decades thanks to strides in automation and AI technologies.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts the jobs market will be shaken up by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, genetics and biotechnology. This will cause “widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labour markets…with enormous change predicted in the skill sets needed to thrive in the new landscape,” according to its ‘Future of Jobs’ report.
Similarly, in a recent survey by BAE systems, nearly half of people aged 16-24 believe their future careers will be in roles that don’t even exist yet.
While computerisation has historically been confined to routine tasks involving rule-based activities, computers can now use big data to carry out cognitive tasks previously done by humans, while robots with enhanced senses and dexterity can perform a broader array of manual tasks too. The snowballing impact of these technological advances puts almost half of jobs in the US at ‘high risk’ from robots, according to a 2013 report by two researchers at Oxford University, which has been described as one of the most influential studies of our time.
The researchers came up with a novel way of estimating the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, and their findings made for bleak reading. “Our model predicts that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are at risk,” they write.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Over the next 15 years, automation and other technologies will “bring numerous benefits in the form of higher productivity, GDP growth, improved corporate performance, and new prosperity,” according to McKinsey.
Some experts believe that automation technology will actually create new jobs for humans. For example, the WEF report predicts automation will create two million computer, mathematical, architecture and engineering-related jobs, while workers in manufacturing and production will probably be able to upskill to avoid being substituted by robots.
“Robotic process automation is well positioned to increase the job satisfaction of the jobs that are left to humans, while also introducing new careers into the job market that we may never have anticipated,” says David Biden, CEO of automation company Human+.
So what will the world of work look like in the next 15 years and beyond? It may be impossible to predict, but Biden believes you might be able to apply for roles like these…
1. Algorithm bias auditor
If your sense of justice is matched by your eye for detail, this job may be for you. Algorithm bias and other programming errors have hit the headlines with Microsoft’s AI Tay chatbot spouting offensive phrases it learned from Twitter and Google’s image recognition program, labelling several black people as gorillas. So, if you imagine that robots are doing more and more customer service roles, and could one day recruit human workers for jobs, this becomes a huge problem.
Oliver Cook, automation consultant at Human+, says: The role might change from being involved in the input stage to checking to see an AI machine isn’t biased. He adds it’s important that people be recruited from different backgrounds, to try and prevent human bias influencing an algorithm’s judgement too.
2. Staff empathy consultant
As bots are introduced to the workforce, their human colleagues will probably feel a range of emotions, from excitement to apprehension, Biden says. Essentially, this role would be a high-tech HR position to ensure humans can work with intelligent machines harmoniously. Humans doing this job would need to have technical knowledge to understand the automated software, as well as the people skills and empathy needed to reassure human workers and manage the transition.
An ‘empathy economy’ is one of four visions of the future of the labour market in 2035 that make up a report by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). “This is where technological progress is rapid and many menial tasks are automated, leaving high touch, high empathy tasks for humans,” says its author Asheem Singh, RSA’s director of economy. He believes that some version of this is “highly likely” as we already see it in the branding and workplaces of the present tech giants, so empathy-based jobs are also probable. However, there is a danger that empathy simply becomes another ‘selling point’ or ‘commodity’ and thus itself becomes robotic, he says.
3. Health data analyst
It may seem a long way off that wearables will report our every move to our doctors, but virtual clinical trials are already running, and health analysts are using the data they create to determine the future of drug discovery and production. Consequently, this role would involve checking that personal data is not used irresponsibly.
More controversially, information about our wellbeing, collected by sensors in the workplace, could be used by our bosses, according to the RSA’s ‘precision economy’ scenario. For example, wearables could be used to check shop assistants’ activity, while sensors on other objects could track time spent inactive and on sales conversions. This could be used by managers to reward or punish workers, meaning monitoring and analyst roles may become important.
4. Automated fleet vehicle scheduler
Automated vehicles are set to hit our roads in the not-too-distant future, with some models already boasting automated parking systems. Managing them will become a job, perhaps a little bit like a high-tech traffic controller at the airport. Like all the other jobs, it’s easy to imagine that with time, this role may become redundant as AI cars, equipped with sensors for everything, are able to schedule their own maintenance and even make their own ethical decisions.
5. Voice UX designer
“We’ve all spoken to a robot during a customer service enquiry – but as this becomes more and more prevalent, having someone dedicated to designing a strong ‘voice UX’, or user experience, will become a key differentiator for competing businesses,” Biden says. We’re already comfortable talking to voice assistants like Siri and Alexa, with more call centres automated by chatbots, and even local councils are using voice services to make their services more accessible, making Voice UX skills in demand already and growing rapidly.
6. Bot manager
If you work in IT support, you may transition to become a bot manager in the coming years. Biden says that while robots don’t need holidays or toilet breaks, they do need to be managed through software upgrades to ensure they stay compatible and secure, and to ensure new services are properly orchestrated with one another. However, in the future, this job could be done by AI bots themselves, so some become the robotic overlords of others, a little like ‘The Office’ meets Death Star (‘Star Wars’) armies.
Perhaps in the more distant future, human managers will have to stop robots running amok, digitally as well as physically. Recently, a Facebook experiment had to be shut down because two AIs communicating with each other crafted their own language and used it to express ‘dangerous’ thoughts, Singh says. So there is a possibility that roles like this one become a necessity sooner than we may imagine.
7. Robotic licence auditor and registrar
While Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, doubts robots will take our jobs within 10 or even 20 years, he believes we will see more ‘automated intelligence’ or robots helping us do our jobs better. Such bots are already used in warehouses such as Amazon’s to move heavy loads autonomously, and in precision engineering, for example, and this futuristic administrative role concerns their registration and audit.
In the far future, humans may well want to keep a close eye on intelligent and sentient robots, like those in the dystopian TV show ‘Humans’, but in the nearer term there is a more boring reason for this role: tax.
Cook says one person can easily manage 150-200 digital workers such as chatbots, for example. But if these bots replace human workers, there is a big economics question of who will pay taxes to maintain public services for humans, such as healthcare, and whether we will move from taxing income to taxing capital, which is usually avoided so as not to constrict growth. “I don’t know anyone who’s come up with an answer to this problem yet,” Cook says.
While these new roles will evolve (if they become reality), Biden believes all existing roles will have to adapt to the presence of intelligent machines too. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has pinpointed two existing roles that are likely to be in more demand in the short term. Data analysts will be needed to advise businesses about the best way to navigate new technologies and the torrent of data generated by them, while specialised sales reps who are capable of explaining companies’ tech products to businesses, governments and consumers will also be required.
However, while there will be winners, there will be losers too. Automation has and will reduce the need for routine chores and boring and repetitive jobs, “but many of these jobs supported a broad and relatively prosperous middle class,” says Carl Frey, Oxford Martin Citi Fellow at Oxford University and co-author of the 2013 report referred to above.
Across nearly all industries, the impact of technological change is shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets. The WEF report says that on average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will comprise skills that are not considered crucial today.
In the next decade, the time spent by workers using advanced technological skills will increase by 50 per cent in the United States and by 41 per cent in Europe, McKinsey’s report says, predicting that the fastest rise will be in IT and programming skills – so it’s no time to be a technophobe.
There will also be an increase in the need for workers with finely tuned social and emotional skills. “The rise in demand for entrepreneurship and initiative taking will be the fastest growing in this.” So just how do we make sure current workers and the next generation obtain the skills to stand a chance of thriving alongside intelligent computers, instead of being replaced by them?
Remarkably, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist, according to the WEF’s ‘Future of Jobs’ report.
The RAEng’s Morgan believes we need to teach children the fundamentals of maths and science at school, as well as computing and coding, in order to prepare them for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “We need to make sure that children can take knowledge and create new processes and ideas as well as critically evaluate ideas and judge them against things like ethics and sustainability,” he says.
However, the biggest challenge may be upskilling the current and emerging workforce, 80 per cent of whom will have already left school in 2030. The WEF believes business will need to dramatically change their approach to education, putting talent development and future workforce strategy ‘front and centre to their growth.’
Don’t dust off your CV just yet. It’s likely that even applying for a new role will be different from today, with face-to-face interviews and carefully worded CVs replaced by apps.
The RSA’s report predicts that permanent contracts and 9-5 working patterns will probably become a rarity, with ad-hoc shifts becoming the norm across the healthcare and retail sectors by 2035.
The gig economy is already growing at an astonishing rate, with an estimated 57 million people in the US and 1.1 million people in the UK relying on flexible short-term jobs to pay the bills. But while typical zero-hours contracts are currently poorly paid, in the future, exclusive platforms will emerge, the report says.
“At one end is Finest, with gigs only for the brightest minds whose performance and empathy metrics pass a high threshold. At the other is Worka, where work is available to anyone desperate enough to do mucky and miserable tasks such as content moderation on social media,” the ‘precision economy’ scenario reads, which may mean in the future there is no need to send out your CV to prospective employers.
Cook believes AI will have more of a positive impact than simply creating new types of jobs – at least in the transitional period. “AI could really improve the quality of people’s lives. We could totally rethink the future of work. Working a five-day week is a construct… and a lot of mundane tasks could be done by computers so people can focus less on transactions and be more creative,” he says.
However, this happy ending depends on upskilling. Frey argues in his new book, ‘The Technology Trap’, that joblessness is “by far the greatest threat to people’s happiness and is [or will be] especially prevalent among people with no more than a high-school degree who would have flocked into the factories before the rise of the robots”.
While we may not have a crystal ball to guide us along our career paths in the coming decades, one thing is for sure. To stay relevant and keep pace with the robots we will all need to learn new skills. It’s time to dust off that coding text book, or should we say, app.