Forty or fifty years ago, we were all convinced that robots would be the norm right now.
It wasn’t just futurists picturing a time when robots would outnumber humans. Plus the mere idea of robots was (and is) pretty attractive. Mums and dads dreamed of having their own Rosie to do all the housework, just like in The Jetsons. Kids wanted a K-9 (Doctor Who) that, in addition to being somewhat tidier than the family pooch, could also shoot lasers out of his nose. And C-3PO, whilst undoubtedly the dorkiest ‘droid of the Star Wars franchise, also held a certain appeal for those who couldn’t wait for the day that robots broke down language barriers.
Now it’s 2016, and you’d be forgiven for occasionally thinking, “well, where’s my helper robot?!” That’s fair enough; after all, for the last couple of decades, we’ve seen amazing humanoid prototypes coming out of Japan. The endearingly cute Pepper has been available in Japan since June 2015 and is soon to be rolled out internationally, joining a number of other humanoid robots currently for sale. But the truth is, robots have been part of our lives for decades now.
Perhaps one of the most common but least publicly visible subsets of robotics is industrial robots. These are the nimble assembly line machines that do everything from putting together cars to stacking pallets of food. It’s worth noting that they’ve quietly been changing the composition of our labour force for a long time now, such that there are some jobs that no longer exist (or are rare) for humans. Telephone switchboards, setting bowling alley pins, toll collection, food manufacturing – all areas in which human jobs have disappeared.
Could robots and AI replace human workers?
The latest developments are bringing technology closer to the frontline – in some places, in to our homes. Artificial intelligence (the software that makes robots smart and able to learn) and robots (the physical, mechanical systems) are popping up everywhere from our kitchens, to our local shops, to our workplaces.
A series of academic papers from the last three years, including one prominent study out of Oxford, have predicted that up to 47% of jobs could be eliminated in the next few decades.i A World Economic Forum report says just over 5 million jobs will disappear by 2020.ii If you’re game, you can look up your job on a calculator created by NPR from that Oxford study data.iii
The good news is that most studies say there are certain jobs that have much lower chances of being automated, because of the inherent skills and responsibilities. According to that aforementioned Oxford study, the more your job requires you to negotiate, personally help people and come up with clever solutions, the less likely it is you’ll be replaced by machines (admittedly, a bit of a relief to us).
If you were thinking of a career change anyway, or if your child or grandchild is still undecided, several projections are available to help you pick a job that will be in hot demand in the future. For example, one government report says the fastest growth industry will be health care and social assistance, which includes roles from personal carer and social worker to nurse, doctor or surgeon.iv
Some projections on the rollout of AI and robotic technology are likely to be revealed as overly ambitious – for example, driverless cars, which are already causing serious concerns for human safety.
One thing is for sure; in our lifetime, robots will change the world irreversibly. It’s an exciting time to be alive.
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i Frey and Osborne, ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computeristation?’ (University of Oxford, 2013)
ii World Economic Forum ‘The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (January 2016).