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How Long Before Intelligent Robots Terminate Your Job?

Don’t worry, you’re office isn’t about to be overrun by Daleks or Terminators or some other malevolent sci-fi machines. Instead, what I am talking about is a much more discrete invasion of clever computer programmes that are threatening to change the workplace and, in the worst case scenario, leave many of us without work.

Tech in the Workplace

Of course, it’s not unusual for businesses to embrace revolutionary working techniques and technologies; they’ve been doing it for centuries. From the birth of the industrial revolution, through Adam Smith’s division of labour to the advent of computers, businesses have always been keen to implement any idea or machine that improves the bottom line.

For example, the car industry, which itself was created by technological advance, was quick to realise the huge benefits of automation. Henry Ford famously started using a moving assembly line in 1913 and soon afterwards millions of Americans owned a Model T. It was irrelevant to him that in one fell swoop he had helped destroy numerous jobs in the horse and carriage industry and other less efficient car producers.

So, whilst the successful implementation of new working practices helps keep the big boss happy, unfortunately the same can’t always be said for workers who suddenly find their skills are now unwanted or obsolete.

The Benefits of Tech

However, in the grander scale of things, it can be argued that the advance of technology leads to the creation of millions of more jobs than it destroys. Some forty years after Henry Ford started mass-producing vehicles, car maker General Motors had become the largest employer in the United States being responsible for over 3 million direct and indirect jobs. 

And more recently, the introduction of automatic teller machines in the United States surprisingly didn’t lead to a decrease in the numbers of human bank tellers. "At the dawn of the self-service banking age in 1985 ... the United States had 60,000 automated teller machines and 485,000 bank tellers. In 2002, the United States had 352,000 ATMs--and 527,000 bank tellers. ATMs notwithstanding, banks do a lot more than they used to and have a lot more branches than they used to."

The Times They Are A-Changin’

So we can relax, right? The introduction of new tech doesn’t always mean jobs will be lost and if an employee is unlucky enough to find his or her job replaced, it’s just a case of adapting, retraining and embarking on one of the new opportunities created further down the line. Phew....

Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but there is an increasing belief that we may be entering an era when the speed of technological change is so great that it will destroy jobs more quickly than it creates new ones. There’s no sugar-coating this potentially bitter pill: in the near future there could be more of us fighting for fewer jobs and all for lower wages.

So what’s changed since the days of Henry Ford? The answer is simple: artificial intelligence. And as AI gets progressively more sophisticated, ever increasing numbers of professions will be in the line of fire.

The Turing Test

An indication of the progress of AI was shown recently when the Royal Society in London announced that an artificial intelligence computer programme had, at least in their view, passed the famous Turing Test for the very first time.

Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and considered by many to be the father of AI, played a crucial role in developing early computers which deciphered Nazi code in WW2. After the war, he began questioning how far AI could potentially progress. In his paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" published in 1950, he formulated his test for deciding whether a computer could ever appear as intelligent as a human. Well, we may well be at that point now.

Warning Signs

Bill Gates, a man who knows a thing or two about predicting future trends, is worried that governments and employees are unaware of the threat AI robots pose to jobs; it’s a process he calls ’software substitution’. "Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. ...  Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. ...  20 years from now, labour demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model."

A study commissioned by Ricoh seems to suggest he may be right. Many of the employees asked their views on further technology in the workplace only saw this new tech as something that would aid their jobs rather than be a rival. 

Even now, computers are muscling in on some roles that were previously untouchable. When an earthquake hit L.A., a Robo-Journalist was the first to report on the incident, posting a report online within three minutes.

Professions at Risk

So what professions are more at risk? Well, the Economist has given this subject some thought and has concluded that accountants, telemarketers and technical writers are amongst the most at risk. Those deemed the safest include dentists, recreational therapists and athletic trainers! If you are currently employed in the former group you may want to think about changing track.

Whatever the future holds, it’s always wise to reassess your career goals every few years. Things can change so quickly in the world of work and whether your job is at threat from intelligent computers or hungrier humans, it amounts to the same thing: if you stand still you lose.


Photo: "ASIMO Conducting Pose on 4.14.2008" by Vanillase - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ASIMO_Conducting_Pose_on_4.14.2008.jpg#mediaviewer/File:ASIMO_Conducting_Pose_on_4.14.2008.jpg

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