Will a robot take my job?

Much is written about artificial intelligence and robotics but what most of us really want to know is: will a robot take my job? When will it happen? What can I do about it?

Let’s start with the bad news. If your job mostly consists of repetitive tasks and simple decisions, you could be affected in the next two to three years. This is because the technology for such activity is already approaching maturity. Robots and artificial intelligence software (AI engines) can readily perform tasks that can, and probably should, worry many employees. For example: AI engines can perform the role of payroll staff in updating systems for various types of leave; they can review contracts in place of junior lawyers; they can copy data from one system to another; and they can approve, or otherwise, simple insurance claims.

Every day, new AI applications are announced or deployed. To be a job threat, all that needs to happen is for your employer to get organised enough to learn the AI capabilities and deploy them. If you are lucky, your employer will be slow off the mark or otherwise distracted (which can certainly happen).

However, if your job involves a substantial amount of human interaction and judgement, then AI is not going to threaten your employment for a long time. Indeed, for the next decade it will only enhance your job, replacing the drudgery with interesting and distinctly human work.

QUICK FACTS – AI AND AUTOMATION

  • 50% – Proportion of work activities that can be automated
  • 75-375 million – Number of workers globally who will need to switch occupations by 2030
  • $2.2 trillion – Boost to Australia’s national income that automation could deliver over the next 15 years

Sources: McKinsey Global Institute Analysis and Automation Advantage report

There are two reasons for this predicted decade of relative safety. First, most Australian businesses are still only in the very early stages of AI and robotic deployment. For them, most of the next decade will be taken up with the elimination of human involvement at the simpler end of the spectrum. Second, machine-learning technologies (the basis of most software robot and AI analysis engines) are much less mature for complex human tasks. By complex tasks, I mean activities such as human-to-human influencing or sophisticated decision making. Sales and sophisticated advisory tasks are not going to be replaced by digital assistants any time soon.

Let’s say you manage a sales force. Many of the tasks you perform cannot yet be appropriately automated, such as developing a differentiated sales strategy, giving performance feedback or taking a big client to lunch. We are partly protected because humans still have a strong preference for dealing with other humans for important decisions, such as where to invest our superannuation or whether an operation will fix the pain in our knee.

Theoretically, this advice could be provided by sophisticated AI engines, but research indicates we will not be all that comfortable with the computerised advice. Kurt Grey (Harvard Business Review, 2017) found that we are less trusting of AI engines because they do not actually “care” about the outcome or, more importantly, about us. Such empathetic behaviour is not likely to happen with a robot colleague.

Furthermore, decision making in circumstances with limited information and uncertainty over the outcome (think most forms of management) is just tougher (read more expensive) for AI engines to do reliably. So, for those of us dealing with complex human interactions and making sophisticated decisions on limited information, AI will only remove the boredom of repetition from our jobs – it will not remove the jobs.

Another piece of good news is that AI technologies will lead to a lot of new jobs. The reason is that AI engines that analyse data can provide insights at incredible pace. For example, such AI engines could be examining changes to the nature of customer needs or newly emerging risks. If fresh and valuable information is being produced frequently, someone needs to determine what to do about it (hence decision-making roles), then someone needs to make those changes (hence project-based roles). Therefore, thanks to human interaction and complexity, most of us need not panic yet. However, more advanced AI is on the way, if only because it is such a hot investment category.

The smart play is to begin positioning for the inevitable, so you can take advantage of those newly emerging jobs. That means developing skills in people management, decision making, and in project delivery. These are broad skill categories encompassing project management, change management, communication, leadership, strategic thinking, decision making, selling, negotiating, creative design and more. These distinctly human skills will remain in high demand.

The bottom line is: the more you are doing simple tasks and making simple decisions, the more worried you should be. However, most of us have jobs with many complex human interactions and sophisticated decisions. Such complexity buys us time to prepare for the change. You could be developing yourself for the boom in change-related jobs driven by AI engines, finding hundreds of new niches, insights and optimisation opportunities.

To paraphrase Louis Pasteur, in this stage of history, fortune favours the prepared human.

Roger Perry is the Managing Director of the Bevington Group, and one of the region’s foremost productivity improvement and organisational design experts. He has been an Assignment Director and Steering Committee member on over 40 transformation programs.