Robotics and artificial intelligence have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, so you could be forgiven for thinking that we'll soon be bossed by the bots. We're now in an age where cars drive themselves and robots can deliver your takeaway. According to a study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte, about 35% of jobs in the UK and 47% of jobs in the US are at risk of computerisation within the next 20 years. While the study reveals that in the UK alone, technology has contributed to the loss of 800,000 jobs, the report states there is equally strong evidence to suggest it has helped to create 3.5 million higher-skilled roles in their place.
Nevertheless, many are starting to consider what the job market of the future looks like. Some argue that we have a jobless future ahead of us, and the whole meaning of what it is to 'work' will radically transform. Ultimately, the rise of robotics, combined with increasing unemployment rates, has led to great concern over the threat that automation poses to our 9 to 5.
Before we all freak out, let's take a deep breath and reflect for a moment. Historically, almost all industries have been disrupted by technology at one point or another. Consider agriculture, which has seen a decline in numbers of 95% since 1871 in the UK. Likewise in the US in 1790, up to 93% of the population were farmers and by 1990 it was down to just 2%. The mechanisation of farming didn't ruin the economy, but rather made room for innumerable other, now thriving, industries. A study of UK census results since 1871 has found that over the last century or so, machines have ultimately created more jobs for people. "While these technologies are both real and important, and some jobs will disappear because of them, the future of jobs overall isn't nearly as gloomy as many prognosticators believe," Forrester Analyst J.P. Gowner writes in a recent report. "In reality, automation will spur the growth of many new jobs--including some entirely new job categories."
Although the introduction of robots to the workforce may ultimately make many jobs redundant, more roles will be created that enable people to develop further professionally. The jobs that are most susceptible to automation are those that are predictable, repetitive and don't require a great deal of social intelligence. Among these are many administrative roles, as well as more dangerous jobs in industries such as manufacturing - here, automation also reduces the risk of workplace injury.
So what does this look like for jobs across the board? As with farming, the more monotonous aspects of roles across all industries will become automated, freeing up time to focus on tasks that need our attention. For example, in healthcare administrative tasks could be performed by robots so there is more time to care for patients. "We're replacing jobs that people don't want to do and really shouldn't be doing," says Aldo Zini, president of the robotics firm Aethon. Very few jobs could currently be fully automated (only around 5%), while around 45% of activities people perform could be automated.
The fact is, there are still many jobs where the human touch is essential for success. We can start by looking at qualities humans possess that just can't be replicated by machines. Jobs that require skills such as creativity, negotiation, persuasion or empathy are very unlikely to become automated. Many roles that involve managing and developing people, where experience and interpersonal skills are a huge asset also have a very slim automation potential. Industries such as care work, social work and teaching are among the least likely to be automated, as empathy is a crucial aspect to the role.
For organisations and industries that are on the cusp of transform through automation, there will undeniably be a period of adjustment. Workers will need to upskill and adopt more digital and technical skills in order to work in tandem with robots. As we move towards a society where robots player a greater part in our day-to-day, we will also need people who are skilled in IT and technology, ultimately creating more roles.
New ways of working and generating income will arise; some think data will be monetised thanks to the rise in Internet of Things (IoT) technology, while others think the introduction of robots to the workforce could actually guarantee an income for humans.
Ultimately, we need to stop envisioning a dystopian future, where humans are expendable thanks to our highly skilled robot replacements because it's simply not going to happen. Let's leave the boring, dangerous work to the machines and get on with doing what humans do best: creating and caring. It's impossible to know exactly what jobs of the future will look like at this stage, new industries that we can't even imagine will undoubtedly arise. After all, what if you told people a hundred years ago about the things we do today; like social media, artificial intelligence, virtual reality? They might not even believe you. Right now, I'm excited about the industries that are transforming for the better through robotics and automation.
Roger Bou is Director of the IoT Solutions World Congress, leading global event on Industrial IoT, taking place at Fira Barcelona from 25th-27th October. Information and tickets available here.