Since the dawn of time, humans have been looking for ways to improve how we do things. That is, we’re always on the lookout for ways of making mundane tasks easier and faster to complete.
Our latest advancement: automation; and it’s one that’s sending people into a bit of a frenzy. Every week there seems to be a new study or article about the apocalyptic potential of robots and AI. But will robots really take our jobs?
The answer to this question is… maybe. But it’s complicated. Let’s delve into this issue a little further.
This is not the first time robots have taken our jobs
It’s true. Advancements in technology have already taken over 90% of the work that humans used to do. But we haven’t lost 90% of our jobs. In most cases, new roles have been created in their place.
For instance, before the Industrial Revolution, most people worked in agriculture. However, nowadays, only around 2-3% of Australians are employed in this sector, with service industries now driving employment growth. In fact, in 2019, Professional Services, Education and Training Services, and Administrative and Support Services accounted for almost 70% of employment growth.
Another famous example of technology creating jobs was with the introduction of automated teller machines (or ATMs). Back in the 90s when the big banks started installing ATMs around the country, many people worried that bank tellers would become obsolete. If ATMs could dispense and accept cash, then why would we need humans to do it as well?
But, ultimately, the banks did need people. Sure, ATMs reduced the number of employees per branch. But the cost savings allowed the banks to open more branches, employing even more staff who worked alongside ATMs providing complementary services.
Similar stories resonate with various other industries. For instance, the Healthcare industry is a significant adopter of robotics and AI. But we haven’t lost doctors, they’ve just learned to work alongside the new technology to improve patient care. In fact, the Healthcare and Social Assistance industry is predicted to be the most significant contributor of new Australian jobs over the next five years.
Yet another example is the Retail Trade industry. Even in light of the self-checkout and online shopping, employment numbers in retail are looking good, with the sector expected to contribute circa 62,300 jobs over the next five years.
But what about manual labour roles?
Robots now carry out many of the manual labour jobs that were once reserved for humans. There’s no argument there.
The number of robots employed in factories has been steadily increasing since the 70s. That’s all thanks to the automotive automation boom and the introduction of the industrial robot.
One of the critical drivers of accelerated adoption since then has been worker safety. Strenuous, dangerous or repetitive tasks are increasingly being carried out by robots, which has reduced worker injuries across the board. Additionally, robots can work around the clock without getting tired. And, at scale, they can turn out a more consistent product, often at a lower cost.
And more jobs are at risk.
But not all is lost
There’s no denying that low-skilled work is pretty easy to automate. So, jobs where at least 70% of the responsibilities are predictable will likely be replaced by robots eventually. But here’s the silver lining:
Humans still have the advantage when it comes to dexterity - that is, the ability to perform careful and purposeful physical movements. For example, there are now bricklaying robots that can remove humans from this repetitive task, yet are unable to do the grouting.
So, manual labourers, in particular, are likely to find themselves working alongside robots rather than being completely replaced by them (for the foreseeable future at least)
Robots and AI are developed by humans and are still controlled by humans. That means they simply cannot be adopted in the workplace without human input. At least right now.
What’s more, no technology can replicate the complexity of our brain. So, jobs or job elements that require uniquely human skills, like problem-solving, initiative and emotional intelligence - cannot be replaced, at least in our lifetime.
The human element
Occupations that rely heavily on interpersonal skills - like nurses, counsellors, and social workers - are unlikely to be replaced. Sure, it may be possible to automate elements of these jobs. But it’s hard to imagine a world where this type of work is carried out solely by unsympathetic robots.
New job creation
Research shows that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed.
“The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors,” said Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole, authors of Deloitte study ‘Technology and people: The great job-creating machine.’
“Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years.”
It’s also difficult to automate the production of tailored products.
Nowadays, more and more people are after products that are customised to their taste. And, while it may be possible to one day automate that sort of flexibility, it will be another story to do it cost-effectively and at scale.
While robots can complete increasingly complex tasks, they are expensive to buy and run. So, where the costs outweigh the benefits, businesses will continue to employ people to do the work.
Advanced tech and automation, particularly in factories, are often heralded as being the standard across the industry. But, in reality, most businesses remain relatively low-tech and manual due to the high costs of implementation.
As technology advances, the robots of today will, of course, become cheaper to run. But the smarter robots that will replace them will be even more expensive. In this, simple economics may continue to protect some of the manual work that humans do.
So, the answer to the question 'will a robot take my job?'
Robots and AI will impact the majority of jobs to some extent. And robots and AI are sure to replace mundane, repetitive and dangerous tasks. But this will free us up for new opportunities and challenges that can have a real impact.
The demand for uniquely ‘human’ skills and talents - like creativity, emotional intelligence, social influence and negotiation - remains high. So workers who naturally have these skills or can work on them will be better placed in the future.
Those currently in or entering the workforce need to be adaptable and stay open to continuous learning as technology moves forward. Workers who are not technologically apt are best to stick to (or upskill for) industries where the demand for interpersonal skills is high.
Learn about the top 15 in-demand skills for 2020.