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How Likely Are You to Lose Your Job to a Robot?

Michael O'Dwyer| February 12 2018

| IT insights

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If some comedians speculate that women only tolerate men only because replacement devices can’t buy them dinner, perhaps employers of the future will be as logical when allocating robotic resources to their workforce?

Let’s face it: if companies can save money, they will. And if an employee can be reduced to a robotic finger to push a button when needed, they will be. After all, that ‘finger’ doesn’t require a social security number, pension or dental—at least not until such time that robot lawyers succeed in their quest for robot emancipation and enjoy the same rights as their flesh and blood counterparts.

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Robots and sensors are not new and have been changing automation in multiple industries for decades. We’ve seen the number of security guards reduced by security cameras and remotely-monitored connected systems. The automotive industry has been using robots in their assembly lines for years. Some finished products and robotic hybrids even achieved international stardom in a dance routine/transformers rip-off video in 2005. Bomb technicians use robots to investigate suspect devices, for obvious reasons. So what’s changed our attitude towards robots?

Why Is Everyone So Concerned About Robots?

In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, swarm intelligence, predictive analytics, and Big Data are all concepts that have hit the mainstream media and have been implemented with varying degrees of success by the world’s largest companies. Aided by ubiquitous high-speed broadband and user mobility, user concerns have ranged from fear of a Terminator-style global uprising to the more personal “what about my job?”

Futurists agree that robotics and AI will have an impact on future workforce opportunities. Some may experience the humiliation of being replaced by a robot as technological advances make some jobs obsolete or, in business terms, ‘no longer cost-effective.’

So what jobs are likely to disappear first? Probably the boring ones.

“Most manual labor, like assembly line or heavy lifting. Definitely hazardous materials—already we send robots to defuse bombs, and we can use drones to scope out active shooter scenes or fires,” said Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications at Accessibility Partners, an IT consulting company that makes technology more accessible to users with disabilities.

“Robots will eventually take many jobs that involve repeatable and predictable activities, but they will not take all jobs.  Jobs that involve intense creativity applied to new things will not be easily completed by robots.  Additionally, designing and maintaining robots will become a growing new profession,” said Czarina Walker, founder of InfiniEDGE Software, a Louisiana-based developer of custom Web and mobile applications.

Very true, with any new tech, the ability to update, maintain and replace is key, and we will take those jobs, at least until the next wave of robots.

“Artificial Intelligence is a very misunderstood term.  Not all robots will need true Artificial Intelligence.  Many robots will just need to handle a very precise set of tasks much like an app on your phone or website would,” said Walker.

Exactly, a wrench with AI?  Not needed, in the same way we don’t need a smart toaster taking up an IP address on your network.

For robots with inbuilt AI, are employment options more interesting?

“Private sector jobs that involve repeatable tasks (assessments, or audits) and government jobs with more rigid processes that do not change often (such as permitting, or issuing licenses), may be the first jobs we see affected by AI.   We already see AI in a lot of places that I don’t believe anyone would have expected 5-10 years ago.  For example, personal assistants who can handle specific tasks like scheduling a flight or sending messages based on speech recognition,” said Walker.

Data-intensive tasks will also be dominated by AI, which is more accurate than humans if programmed correctly.

“For example, you might find that you are checked into a hotel by a robot, or that you do not even need to check in because the hotel is automated and uses your cell phone to unlock your room.  Or what if instead of your favorite restaurant treating you like a VIP after dozens of visits, could a robot waiter reliably remember your preferences, including your favorite table, your favorite off-menu dessert, and how you like your drink served to provide better service after one or two visits?” said Walker.

However, AI is fallible.

“AI is making great strides, especially in Microsoft Office, to provide alternative text by scanning the pictures and making assumptions. Once, in PowerPoint, it accurately guessed that there were three people smiling outside, but it missed out on the broader point that these were three staffers at my company,” said Rosenblatt.

Man Vs. Robot: The Countdown Has Already Started.

With simple robots already used in some restaurants, the private sector will use them on a case by case basis.

“The private sector, in particular, will not find value investing in robots to do the same thing that humans can do unless there is a sizeable financial benefit.  Keep in mind that robots will still have a cost associated with their full lifetime of use.  Robots will need updates to software, testing, training, and more.  While there might be a robot in your classroom teaching humans, this same robot will still involve a human to design and program the robot, as well as conduct updates as needed,” said Walker.

On a positive note, there are benefits for those with disabilities.

“I think AI and robots will help clear barriers for humans with physical challenges to enter more jobs or remain in the workforce longer.  There may be robots to help with special and physical needs of humans throughout their lives, including hearing, visual impairments, and more,” said Walker.

“Yet, I still think in my realm of accessibility, human judgment ultimately reigns supreme. Here’s an example of where I see this: accessibility web regulations require that any non-textual content, like a graphic, should have a textual equivalent that describes it to users who have visual disabilities.  This is called alternative text, and is within the code of the image (not visible on the website itself) and then translated to users of assistive technology,” said Rosenblatt.

“Overall, for accessibility, you need the human element to provide accurate and equivalent information, or else it won’t be usable. I think AI and robots are great ‘fall back’ plans, but should never be relied upon,” added Rosenblatt.

Can you teach a machine to be creative?

Using robotics to aid or improve human senses with implants or prosthetics is one thing, but AI is decades away from a realistic human replacement. The androids and robots of science-fiction are still a long way away.

“I don’t think those are going anywhere, but they will evolve. I like to think that the arts, including writing and creativity, aren’t going anywhere,” said Rosenblatt.

“Creativity will really make the difference between jobs that will remain human, and jobs that may be most likely to involve robots.  If your job does not require creativity then maybe it can be done by a robot,” said Walker.

In conclusion, we know the truth. Big Business, in whatever industry, will introduce ‘robots’ as soon as possible, under the guise of efficiency but more accurately to increase profits. You have been warned. If your job can conceivably be performed by a robot, then you will be replaced if your employer can afford the initial investment. I’m assuming that, in this scenario, ongoing maintenance costs less than a human’s salary. A robot is one thing but one with AI is another.

“Robots, just like humans, will have the ability to learn.  The question is what they learn, and who will they learn from?  Will they model after ethical behaviors or non-ethical behaviors displayed around them?  There may not always need to be a decisionmaker while a robot is operating, but somewhere along the way, the human was needed to help design how the robot will interact with users,” said Walker.

When even Stephen Hawking (he’s quite smart isn’t he?) is raising concerns about AI, can we afford to ignore the potential for self-annihilation by allowing autonomous action, unfettered by human intervention? I don’t believe so. As Walker pointed out, change is nothing new, adding that, “Robotics and AI will create jobs, they will just be different jobs that we are not accustomed to seeing.  However, every generation sees different jobs emerge that were not even defined previously.”

Are you really worried about being replaced by a robot? Then check out Walker’s recommendation for a little fun - willrobotstakemyjob.com.  I’m safe for the moment. How about you?

Topics: IT insights

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THIS POST WAS WRITTEN BY Michael O'Dwyer

An Irishman based in Hong Kong, Michael O’Dwyer is a business & technology journalist, independent consultant and writer who specializes in writing for enterprise, small business and IT audiences. With 20+ years of experience in everything from IT and electronic component-level failure analysis to process improvement and supply chains (and an in-depth knowledge of Klingon,) Michael is a sought-after writer whose quality sources, deep research and quirky sense of humor ensures he’s welcome in high-profile publications such as The Street and Fortune 100 IT portals.

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