We asked an expert which jobs the robots are going to take first
‘People are the main expense for an organisation – if it can get rid of them, it will’
Anyone who has watched a Terminator film knows it’s only a matter of time before dead-eyed drones acquire sentience and murder every living thing on earth.
Recently, however, our anxiety about robots has shifted. We have grown increasingly concerned about how the robot uprising will affect our livelihoods. Some estimates state that technology will render as many as 60 per cent of jobs obsolete in the next 30 years.
With that in mind, we asked Dr Kevin Curran, reader in Computer Science at Ulster University, what the rise of the machines means for our careers.
Hi Kevin. So tell us – are robots going to take our jobs?
Well, jobs that involve tedious tasks are already being replaced by robots – there’s no reason that trend won’t continue. There are winebots that have been created to replace vineyard workers, herder bots designed to keep cattle in line. There are so many specialised robots already replacing humans.
Computational processes are always improving and new devices are always being rolled out. Truth is, anything that can be automated will be automated – it’s just a matter of time.
What jobs do you think will be the first to go?
The military is always looking to use robots, but they’re mostly focused on drones right now. A lot of it will be things like call centres, many of which are already manned by bots.
Most of the jobs you’d assume could be automated will be the first to be replaced – working in factories, doing repetitive tasks which have to be done very accurately, for example. Robots don’t have to live anywhere, bear in mind, so they’re much cheaper in that way. We’ll start seeing factories on the edge of cities again.
In ten years’ time, for example, Amazon’s warehouses will be completely automated. The only people you’ll need will be there to make sure the robots are plugged in.
And what about the service industry?
We will start to see them in hotels. You have to remember, it costs an amount of money to hire staff – so if one person in a control centre can monitor a number of robots at a reception desk then that makes more sense.
Now that artificial intelligence has taken off, there have been great leaps in stuff we thought wouldn’t have been possible. Now, a robot can easily greet a customer, take their credit card and give them any information they need. The thing about artificial intelligence is it never gets worse – it always gets better.
Really it’s people who let us down: it’s people who don’t turn up for their shift, it’s people who come to work with hangovers. People are the main expense for an organisation – if it can get rid of them, it will.
Do you think compassionate jobs like healthcare and teaching could be done by robots?
It’s completely possible. They did a study in San Francisco to gauge the reaction of elderly residents when they reacted with anthropomorphic healthcare robots, and they actually found that they were calmer and less anxious when reacting with the robots than with humans.
The researchers were surprised with just how much the patients took to these robots, but it’s happening elsewhere already. Bots like Amazon Echo and Siri – when we talk to them we tend to really like them. We interact with them and find we can actually bond with them.
I’m a journalist. Are robots going to take my job?
With things like journalism, there always has to be a source. But now that everything is posted online through so many channels, you could scrape all that information from social media using algorithms. There’s no reason why we couldn’t be getting our news entirely through Facebook chatbots and algorithms within a few years.
After all, computers are much better at working out what people want to look at and responding to feedback much quicker than people working on traditional papers.
So what about high-pressure jobs – lawyers, for example. Are they at risk too?
There’s a lot machine-led environments of law already. Online dispute resolution, for example: if you order something from eBay and there’s a problem, the software will take your complaint and go through a sequence of steps in which it may or may not take you to a human at the end of the line. More often than not, the software works it out itself.
There are also a lot of tedious processes in law which have been revolutionised by technology: E-discovery software which can check facts and verify claims through the internet is huge. There’s a lot of technology seeping into law to make it easier.
How do you think society will cope with the change?
We’re moving into a high-tech world that has been completely changed by the internet, so society has to be prepared for a massive shift. Laws will have to be changed to cope with robots when they integrate more into our society.
Take driverless cars, for example. If there’s an accident, who’s responsible? Or with ethical judgements – if a military drone fires on innocent people because they determined they were terrorists, who is to blame? These are questions we’ve never had to deal with before.
Technology has always driven mankind’s progress, but inevitably each new advance in technology causes new problems. Robots are no different.
So are any careers safe from the robot uprising?
Sports, in some ways – we’re not in the business of watching robots play sport, so if you’re a professional sportsperson you’re safe. If you’re in the entertainment business, you’re probably fine too.
Even then, though, there are sports which could be done by robots. Motor racing, for example: once we can take the people out of the cars, we probably will. The car companies are interested in the engines and the technology on show, so it’s really all about cars being compared against cars.
It’s the same with everything else. If you take any profession, right down to serving in the service industry or working in a field, there are very few things a robot can’t do.
Finally, do you think we should believe Hollywood – are robots going to kill us all?
Not in the way you’re thinking about. Meaning, they’re not going to take over and make us their slaves or try and destroy the world.
We should be more worried about Wall Street Crash situations, in which algorithms don’t work because they’re quick responses to things that have never happened before. We become over-reliant on software, but if it’s not rigorously tested then mistakes can be made.
Then again, to cope nowadays you have to rely on technology. The positives outweigh the negatives, so to succeed in the modern world you have to just embrace technology as best you can.
Oh, and keep your phone on.