By Thomas Shambler
Automation is steadily affecting jobs in finance, healthcare and insurance. But the future isn't entirely controlled by robots. Here's how to remain relevant in an increasingly artificially intelligent world
Robots have been replacing humans for half a century. When people first started employing robots over their human cohorts, it was in the manufacturing industry. Decades later, robots have revolutionised the business of physical labour, proving more efficient and safer than flesh-and-blood employees. The next great leap for robot workers was basic automation-bots – which could handle relatively simple transaction-based customer-service jobs.
Booking a flight home used to involve talking to a travel agent, now it involves a few web pages and mouse clicks. Same goes for online banking, shopping and property. Now there's a new breed of sophisticated 'cognitive' technologies, powered by artificial intelligence. And they're gunning for jobs in fields like finance, healthcare, insurance and beyond.
Executives from Goldman Sachs and Barclays celebrated the growing trend of robot financial analysts, in a recent New York Times Magazine article. Artificially intelligent traders can process more raw data, and make smarter decisions quicker than any one human.
One study, published by March Pew Research dubbed 'Public Predictions for the Future of Workforce Automation', claims that two-thirds of the current workforce will be replaced by robots within the next 50 years. It goes on to say that most workers dispute this fact, and still believe their own jobs will exist in five decades - contrary to the report.
Given the complexity of most jobs that involve critical thinking, it's hard to believe that one day a robot might become a viable option in those roles. It's true, there's no current artificial intelligence that can handle making decisions on the fly.
However, technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that while the executive robot of the future has yet to be invented, it's only a matter of time. It's no longer a question of if, but when.
Accepting that one day your role might be handled by a robot is a hard pill to swallow. But if we can learn anything from history, it's that when machines take over workers must learn to adapt, and create new roles for themselves.
In the 90s, American insurance provider Allstate became an early adopter of automation software. It started using robots, and in the process over 600 of its employees were promoted to higher-skilled jobs in research, management and sales. That said, almost 400 did not adapt and ultimately were made redundant.
Being flexible is key. And if machines are going to take over increasingly hard roles, then you need to make them work for you. In the book, Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby outline five ways to survive the automation era. Kirby argues that workers must be willing to "burn the midnight oil to improve their own skills, and either make friends with smart machines or find a way to do things they cannot do. Complacency is not an option. But despondency isn't either."
In a further interview with Fast Company, Kirby goes on to admit that machines to the work that machines are best at, like computational tasks involving huge amounts of data. However, emotional intelligence is where humans will continue to reign supreme. And if you can't beat them, join them. Kirby says new roles in a robot dominated workforce will involve "identifying situations for which the machine isn't well suited, and helping it to deliver even greater productivity advances over time".
Speaking at Google, serial entrepreneur and futurist Jerry Kaplan agrees that working with the machines is inevitable. "Artificial intelligence is simply a natural extension of longstanding efforts to automate tasks," which means there will always be taskmasters. "Machines and computers don't do jobs, they automate tasks.
You don't roll in a robot and show an employee the door. Instead, the new technologies hollow-out and change the jobs that people perform." Kaplan admits that not everyone is safe, "If your job involves a very narrow, well-defined set of duties, then your employment is at risk." However, there are some roles that machines will never take, "if your job requires a human touch, like expressing sympathy, providing companionship, or making a connection with someone, then you don't have too much to worry about".
"One person's productivity enhancing tool, is another person's pink slip. Or more likely, a job opening that no longer needs to be filled" admits Kirby, "but historically, as automation has limited the need for workers, the resulting increase in wealth has eventually created new kinds of jobs to take up the slack." In other words, if an executive robot can do your job better then you can, there will always be another job waiting in the wings. The key word, is 'eventually'.