Business Technology

Thursday 27 October 2016

How to stay one step ahead of the robots in the jobs market

Szu Ping Chan

Published 15/09/2015 | 12:31

Look around you.

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Whether you’re commuting or reading this at work, it’s likely that in just a few years’ time, the person to your right or left will have had their job taken by a robot. Maybe it will be you clutching the P45.

A new study published by Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of current jobs won’t be performed by humans any more. Similar research conducted by Oxford University predicted that in “perhaps a decade or two”, 35 per cent of existing jobs are at risk of automation.

Economists have been wrong about the rise of the robot before. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes said that a “new disease” of “technological employment” would be one of the obstacles facing future generations, predicting that we would soon be working 15-hour weeks. But what if he was not mistaken, merely ahead of his time?

Larry Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary, now warns that robots aren’t just a threat to blue collar jobs but “are hurting the middle class worker” too. Certainly some of us will succumb. The researchers at Oxford ranked 700 occupations according to how at risk they were of automation. Psychiatrist? You’ll be fine. Economist? You’re on shaky ground. And if you’re a telemarketer, insurance underwriter or library technician, you may as well save your spot in the dole queue now.

It’s a damning verdict. But the robots haven’t won yet. Many we see in everyday life today – those automated check-outs in supermarkets for example – have a great deal of room for improvement. But yes, robots have an advantage.

They don’t get tired or sick. They don’t need coffee breaks or sabbaticals. They don’t even need to go to the loo. Eventually they will get better at their tasks. And as they do something profound will happen.

As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee highlight in their new work The Second Machine Age, automation has allowed workers to do more for less. But pay hasn’t kept up, resulting in a “decoupling of productivity from employment” – of wealth from work.

Sure, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, says technological change has helped ordinary people to become billionaires from their bedrooms. She told the great and the good at Davos that technology platforms such as Facebook were helping to create jobs in a non-tech world.

But not everyone can become a tech billionaire. I take more comfort in the words of Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, who also describes himself as “positive” about technological change.

He says education is the key to keeping humanity off the scrap heap. That is why Brynjolfsson says the future will not so much be a race against the machine as a race with it.

Take my own case. Apparently, as a financial journalist, there’s an 11 per cent chance I will have been replaced by a robot in two decades’ time. This means I have a better chance of keeping my job than an air traffic controller but less chance than a hairdresser.

Editors and comment writers, though, have just a 5 per cent chance of being replaced by robots, compared with 50 per cent for court reporters. Humans are more valuable when they have opinions, it seems. So perhaps you’ll see my face on these pages more often.

That’s the thing about old Homo sapiens. We learn to adapt.

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