The Robots Are Coming to Take Your Job

Lots of white collar jobs are threatened by the rise of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Australian Financial Review reports. As many as half a million accountants, supermarket cashiers, secretaries, typists and bank tellers in what are largely white-collar jobs are threatened by automation, Australian Department of Industry modelling shows.

The report finds that occupations most at risk of computerization are those that involve routine tasks, such as bank tellers, clerks, bookkeepers and even highly qualified roles such as pharmacists – 78.6 per cent of whom have at least a bachelor’s degree.

The findings, published on Wednesday in the inaugural Australian Industry Report 2014 brings an Australian perspective to an increasingly intense debate that has raged all year in the US over the question of whether automation and advances in computer software are starting to displace white-collar, middle-class jobs for the first time in accelerating numbers.

Nearly half of US jobs could be susceptible to computerization over the next two decades, a 2013 study from the Oxford Martin Program on the Impacts of Future Technology suggested. The authors said the United Kingdom is expected to face a similar challenge to the US.

The study, a collaboration between Dr Carl Benedikt Frey (Oxford Martin School) and Dr Michael A. Osborne (Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford), found that jobs in transportation, logistics, as well as office and administrative support, are at “high risk” of automation. More surprisingly, occupations within the service industry are also highly susceptible, despite recent job growth in this sector.

Robotics and AI Technologies Are Exploding

BaxterBlue collar jobs are similarly threatened by the rise of automation. Baxter, a manufacturing robot developed by a company based in Massachusetts, is perfectly suitable for many factory jobs that used to be performed by human workers. The manufacturer, Rethink Robotics, has given Baxter an iPad for a “face,” and the robot has mechanical arms that humans can manipulate. Crucially, Baxter “remembers” those movements and can repeat them without a coffee break or complaining about pay. Experts say that Baxter is a sign that robotics and AI technologies are exploding.

Of course, automation creates jobs as well as destroying them – for example, it creates jobs for programmers, AI researchers and robotic engineers. But the number of jobs destroyed is much higher: a small team of experts can design and develop a system to replace most of the workers of a factory.

Baxter has a base-price of $25,000, the equivalent of an average US production worker’s annual salary, but it can perform for many years with lower maintenance costs.

In the current economy, businesses have no choices – if automation is much cheaper than workers, business owners must replace workers with automation, or be forced to do so by the competition of other businesses that have already embraced automation.

The problem – that technology destroys more jobs than it creates – doesn’t seem to have easy solutions short of rethinking the economy. It seems likely that developed countries will be forced to offer a basic income to the masses of workers displaced by automation.

Images from Rethink Robotics and Shutterstock.