With huge leaps being made in robotic tech and artificial intelligence, touted to affect jobs by as early as 2024, Delia du Toit gets the low-down on the robot revolution…
The term ‘robot revolution’ conjures up images of a faraway dystopian future reminiscent of scenes from flicks like Ex Machina. It might not be quite that drastic, but experts say that we may very well be on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution that will change the work landscape as we know it.
Is this good or bad?
The burning question is: will people be replaced by robots in the workplace? Experts differ greatly in their opinions. As with any change, some predict disaster while others see golden opportunities – usually, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
‘The Future of Employment’, a 2013 University of Oxford study, said 47% of jobs were at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years. High risk here could mean complete automation, or part-automation – the latter may result in employees needing to upskill or reskill to fulfil new requirements in existing jobs, which may see them lose the job anyway if they can’t keep up with new demands.
Tumelo Mojapelo, head of content at trends-analysis company Flux Trends, says robots will take over up to 35% of jobs in SA by 2030. And it isn’t only blue-collar work that’s going the way of WALL-E, he adds – it’s white-collar roles, too. But just because something can be automated, doesn’t mean it will be. “Robotics might be developing rapidly, but there could be a delayed adoption due to the costs of buying this tech.”
Meanwhile, insights from McKinsey & Company Digital, a global business-management consultancy firm, are more conservative – they say only 5% of jobs are likely to become fully automated, while in 60% of jobs, 30% of current tasks will soon be handled entirely by machines. For them, it’s more about redefining jobs, not losing them entirely.
“The revolution could create many human jobs,” adds Tumelo, “albeit in new fields like robot building and servicing. Being authentically human could also become a sought-after skill, with more opportunities opening up in people-skill-centred fields, like frail care, for example.”
What can we be doing to future-proof our careers and the careers of our kids? Is it best to err on the side of caution?
Safest & riskiest jobs
Tumelo predicts that jobs requiring ‘hard’ skills, like bookkeeping, bank tellers, cooking, construction, and mining maintenance are most at risk. Jobs that require ‘soft’ skills, such as etiquette, creativity, spontaneity or intuition, may be difficult to replace.
Studies by the University of Oxford and World Economic Forum ranked the jobs robots are least and most likely to take over (by as early as 2024):
Safest: Unpredictable jobs, even if tasks are routine, are safe. A plumber, for example, might always replace a washer the same way, but the tap make and model, and the project urgency can’t be predicted, so the profession is less at risk. Jobs that involve creative thinking or relationship building are also less at risk. Think business strategists, clergy, hair stylists, artists, nurses, psychologists and occupational therapists. There’s a caveat – no one can predict how much robots will learn; how creative they’ll become; how soon that will happen. Already, an AI-co-written novel made it past the first round in a literary contest abroad in 2016.
Riskiest: Routine, repetitive and predictable jobs are most at risk. Top 10 entries are telemarketers, cashiers, legal assistants, pre-booked taxi drivers, fast-food cooks, data-entry keyers, insurance underwriters, mathematical technicians, hand sewers, and cargo or freight agents. Some of these jobs have already been automated. In the US, McDonald’s replaced traditional staff-serviced ordering systems with customer-operable touch screens at a few branches, and H&R Block, a large tax-preparation firm, already uses IBM’s AI platform to do part of their work. In SA, robotic telemarketers are becoming more commonplace, too.
Future careers for your kids
Today’s parents have a new set of challenges to consider when advising their kids on career choices. “We can’t assume our children will enjoy the safe and stable career trajectory provided by companies and governments in the past,” says educational psychologist Hannes Wessels. Instead, ‘safe’ careers in the future will be those that still require a human touch.
Robots might be able to perform surgery, for example, but humans would want other humans to care for them (GPs and nurses) or to listen to their problems (psychologists). Robots could also compile textbooks, but mentoring a child will be a human job (teachers and coaches). And although a robot could crunch numbers, solving an engineering or mathematical problem requires human creativity.
Jobs in the experience economy are also a safer bet, says Hannes. This includes anything that provides people with unique or memorable experiences – so, from beauty and entertainment, to customer service and tourism.
How can you future-proof?
Adapting to a new era of automation may require some upskilling or even reskilling. Many experts agree that, in the future, the average adult will be working for a number of companies simultaneously rather than working for one single corporation. For this reason, it’s in your best interest to become as agile as possible; to have many forms of talent and work skills that can provide an income.
“Think about what value you can offer the society of the future, and believe in yourself,” says master neuro-coach Karin Aucamp. Upskilling doesn’t have to mean becoming an absolute expert in a number of different fields – being really good at one thing, while also being capable in several other areas is the way of the future. So, consider doing short courses that could build on your existing skill set, courses that could help you branch out into parallel fields, or courses that would help you monetise a hobby you enjoy.
You don’t have to become a full-time student to expand your career horizons, either. These online options are the way to go:
Considering a new career: If you plan on entering a profession that’s entirely new to you or requires a specialised certificate or degree, its best to learn everything from the ground up and get a solid qualification. Distance-learning institutions like Unisa are your best choice here.
Branching out in your field: Online learning centres like coursera.org, udemy.com and lynda.com offer short courses from reputable institutions – ideal for learning a new skill in a field you already know something about. You can complete some of the courses for free, and then pay a fee to get your results certified if and when required.
Low on cash and time: Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are free university courses or classes open to everyone. The selection isn’t always great, but you’ll learn a little about a lot of things. class-central.com offers MOOCs from international institutions and the University of Cape Town, while edx.org offers MOOCs from international institutions as well as Wits.