Whether you work in a shop, office or factory, there’s a good chance that a machine or high-tech robot could do your job one day. And that day may come sooner than you think. According to a recent Oxford University study, 35% of UK jobs are at risk of computerisation in the next 20 years. Machines won’t just do our future jobs better – they’ll work without needing a break, salary or sickness pay.
Think that sounds like science fiction? It’s already happening. Half of all secretarial roles in the UK have been lost in the past decade, as software is able to perform the same tasks, while machines that can scan thousands of pre-trial documents are already threatening the role of legal assistants.
Having analysed a variety of occupations, Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne suggest that millions of office roles will become obsolete, with call centre operatives, office administrators, legal secretaries and bank clerks all “highly likely” to be replaced by computers.
If you’re a telephone salesperson you might want to consider a career change now – there’s a 99% chance that a robot will do your job in the next two decades. Other high-risk occupations include typist (98.5%); legal secretary (97.6%); financial accounts manager (97.6%); weigher, grader, or sorter (also 97.6 %); sales administrator (97%) and book-keeper, payroll manager or wages clerk (also 97%).
Rise of the robots
You don’t have to look far to see the rise of automation. Self-service machines in shops, airports and libraries are now commonplace and are set to become more pervasive. Take North Carolina State University. It no longer needs humans – or book shelves – as it has “bookBots” to retrieve its 1.5 million books from 18,000 metal bins.
Amazon uses an army of robots in its warehouses and has invested heavily in drone technology, with the aim of delivering to customers within 30 minutes. Google is driving forward with its unmanned cars and has recently bought eight robotic firms… what for, only time will tell.
James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, believes that a human-looking Google robot could be very useful. He told BBC News: ‘A high quality personal assistant wouldn’t be just a smartphone – it’d have a humanoid body. Why humanoid? So it can drive your car, use your tools, bounce the baby, act as your bodyguard if need be.’
Neil Jacobstein, head of Artificial Intelligence at Singularity University, points out that AI’s are already embedded in the fabric of our everyday lives. Used in medicine, law, design and throughout automotive industry, the algorithms that make decisions behind the scenes are getting smarter all the time. Like many other experts, Mr Jacobstein expects artificial intelligence to overtake human intelligence within the next couple of decades.
Robots are already running things in some factories. Changying Precision Technology Company in China, which makes parts for cell phones, recently opened a fully-automated factory. Every process is operated by computer-controlled robot arms, while unmanned transport trucks and automated warehouse equipment shift stock. Not so long ago, the company employed 650 people. Now there are just 60 people, which will eventually reduce to 20. A few humans are required to monitor production lines and keep an eye on things, watching operations on-screen from a control room.
You can’t argue with the figures. Since the robots came, production capacity at the factory has increased from 8,000 pieces per person per month to 21,000 pieces, while the defect rate has dropped by 20%. The company is not alone. More than 500 factories in Dongguan city have invested £430m in automation since September 2014. As a result some 30,000 jobs are expected to go.
Several countries, notably the United Arab Emirates and Japan, have automated train systems – and one day, driverless cars will transform our roads. Driverless pods have already been trialled on the streets of Milton Keynes, while self-driving cars have racked up over a million miles on US roads. When automated vehicles become a reality, bus, truck, taxi and delivery drivers will be out of work.
Future-proof your job
Worried about the long-term potential of your career? Choose an occupation that calls for profoundly human skills, such as creativity and problem solving, or that requires empathy and caring, or a high level of social intelligence or negotiation skills.
Nurses, social workers, psychologists, teachers and therapists are highly unlikely to be replaced by robots, as human interaction and empathy is a crucial part of the job. Creative or problem solving roles, such as designer, artist or engineer are relatively safe, as are managerial positions that require high-level negotiation skills. Even though telemarketers and bank clerks interact with the public, they don’t necessarily require advanced social intelligence and so are easily replaced by machines, say the study authors.
Of course, if you can’t beat them you could always join them. There is a massive IT skills shortage in the UK and experts estimate that there will be 750,000 computer science jobs to fill by 2017 – yet only 50,000 computer science students graduated last year.
Jobs will be created in computing, engineering and science as people are needed to develop and service the technologies taking over from humans – but get them while you can. Who knows what kind of programming skills artificial intelligence will be capable of in 20 years’ time.
Until then, if you feel like a mindless robot at your job, chances are you’ll soon be replaced by one.
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