As automation and artificial intelligence begins to play a bigger role in the modern workplace there is a growing fear of being replaced by robots. Aurecon advisory managing director, Brad McBean, explains how human creativity and ingenuity will prevent the arrival of the “robopocalypse”.

We’ve heard it all before. Robots ‒ those elusive job munchers ‒ are making their way to an office near you. And the message is clear: they are smarter than you, they are cheaper than you, and they won’t vie for the corner office… like you. After all, it’s not just the postmen and snow plowers and plumbers who face the dirge; the professionals in white coats and collars have reason to steady their knees when pit against the innovative power and pace of artificial intelligence (AI).

Don’t believe it? The fact is, it’s already been happening for years. Just think about how easy it is now to check in your own baggage at the airport. Only a few years ago, we were at the whim of airline staff to do it for us. Or how about when you would plunk your groceries on the conveyor belt and watch the friendly cashier scan your cookies’ bar code? To think the march stops here would be downright absurd. It’s only the beginning.

If you are an employer, constantly squeezed by margin pressure, looking for efficiency, what do you do? Do you invest in technology, knowing that you could render your workforce redundant? The reality is, only some tasks are facing immediate replacement, and so it is in those spaces, where we must seek out fresh innovative seed. Perhaps humanity doesn’t have to end up “on their knees”, as Robopocalypse author, Daniel Wilson, suggests. Perhaps there’s the whiff of reinvention in the air.

McKinsey's latest report on automation displacement reminds us that, although almost every occupation has partial automation potential, humans will remain an essential ingredient in the future workplace equation. Even those jobs that can be easily automated, such as nursing or teaching, rely heavily on interactions between people and expertise that stretches beyond the knowledge of facts.

Where the design and construction of cities of the future depend on public participation, the role of human creativity and ingenuity will keep rising to the top. And for machines that excel at analysing structured data, creative thinking will always remain gold, which is why future-thinking organisations are placing more emphasis on innovation and fostering creativity.

So, while a future with AI might mean the factory floor is inhabited by more affordable, time-efficient robots, designers and engineers will have more time to imagine, create and build; clients will have more choices; and niche opportunities will find new traction.

Others would say that AI and robots are creating a whole new job crop although an estimated 78% of predictable physical jobs in the US, such as packaging, and assembly line work are under replacement threat. But as long as there are machines, there will be glitches and maintenance and updates required. The robot will need replacing, the driverless car will need a tweak. And odds are it will be the human hand doing the fixing.

New jobs will open up. Experts say, for every one million industrial robots created, nearly three million jobs are directly needed to support them.

There is a future of coexistence, but we must ask the big questions now and ensure that conscience leads the way. Should robots be taxed like normal citizens, as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates proposes? It could be a way of slowing down automation and even funding jobs in human-centred sectors such as caring for the elderly and teaching children. And what’s stopping us from asking, should we ban robots in some industries altogether?

These are the questions we need to be asking. If we stay agile and inventive, and if we keep eyes peeled for opportunity, we’re likely to dodge our own demise and remain the future’s authors.

 About the Author: Brad McBean is a strategy consulting professional with more than 14 years experience. He currently leads the Global Advisory Practice for engineering consultancy, Aurecon.
(This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Aurecon's Just Imagine blog).


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