Will robots take over our jobs? WBS investigates

13 November 2015

  • Government set to commission white paper on robots taking human jobs, new Bank of England research puts 15 million jobs at risk
  • Lower skilled and some professional jobs could be taken over by robots
  • Terminator-style robots decades away but 'soft AI' on the rise
  • Growth of AI will be an opportunity for SMEs

Robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have played a popular role in science-fiction for years, from The Terminator films all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s 1950s novels I, Robot and The Bicentennial Man that both became Hollywood films.

However, the emergence of driverless cars, automated speech answering services and self-service machines has made some people genuinely question whether their jobs could be replaced by a robotic counterpart.

In fact, the rise of the machines has led the UK Government to put together a white paper on the matter: something Emmanouil Gkeredakis, Assistant Professor of Information Systems, thinks is very timely.

Dr Gkeredakis says: “AI and, more generally, digital innovations are all around us and are changing – whether we like it or not, or notice it or not – our lives.

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“As far as the future of work is concerned, robots may indeed become a threat to most jobs. It is crucial that an inquiry explores any likely and dramatic changes in labour markets.”

It is professional jobs as well as the lower skilled tasks that could be most under threat, Mark Skilton, Professor of Practice, suggests.

Previous research, such as the Oxford Martin report from 2013, has been influential in identifying jobs that may be at risk in administration, consumer sales, and the service economy, but this is only part of the picture.

A new Bank of England report puts the figure at around 15 million jobs at risk.

“Firstly, low and semi-skilled work could be squeezed and reduced, impacting on the less well-off in society; we are already seeing this with retail stores automating checkout tills and stock tracking with Radio-frequency identification (RIFD) chips as well as self-service in ordering and sales enquiries,” says Professor Skilton.

“But advances in computing algorithms and robotics are moving into semi-skilled and high-skilled professions that require judgement and higher functional reasoning.

“Jobs combining both physical dexterity and mental creativity remain further away from the computerisation curve today. This includes, for example, engineering, education and organisational management, as these involve advanced contextual thinking that takes analytics and creative thinking together in sensemaking, something robots are a long way from doing. 

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“There are several examples of complex algorithms in bio research, such as cancer research and the simulation of brain functions. Likewise in engineering design and forecasting, the use of High Performance Computing (HPC) is pushing areas of cloud and networked clusters into new hybrid research models.

“These are not necessarily replacing humans, rather creating new capabilities to collect, aggregate and synthesise new models. 

"That said medical robotics is another field where surgeons could start using ‘Augmented Reality’ and ‘Virtual Reality’ that are beginning to blur the boundaries a little.”

Dr Gkeredakis, whose research looks at new IT-enabled organisational forms, such as crowdsourcing, also feels the current breed of robots will enhance jobs, not replace them.    

“Contrary to what AI evangelists propagate, technology is likely to shape the nature of work and not replace altogether humans for robots,” says Dr Gkeredakis. “Digital and AI technologies are likely to bring about changes in the way complex, skilled work is accomplished. It is not necessarily about expert human versus expert robot.

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“Having said that without paying attention to the emerging, digitally and AI enabled forms of doing work, workers of even the highest level of expertise may one day find themselves in trouble.

"They will need to adapt to new digitally-enabled ways of performing knowledge intensive tasks if they are to maintain any job security they may have.”

It will be a long time before we see Terminator-style robots, made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger's series of films, taking over jobs. But AI and Avatars - which allow people to control robots by thought or speech - might not take much longer to come to fruition.

“I think we have to separate the hardware and software issues; the physical robots, aka Terminator-like cyborgs; and the virtual software of AI and Avatars we see in the massive data analytics and automated speech and face recognition of today,” says Professor Skilton. 

“While truly human robots are potentially several decades away, the rise of what I call ‘soft AI’ that automates many search queries and tasks is rapid. It will replace many administration tasks with new complex computational capabilities.”

Find out which jobs are under threat

A big issue that AI has to overcome is the cost of the technology to replace humans, and whether the advances in capability beyond what humans can do is actually done quickly enough. But with the rapid pace of development the benefits could soon outweigh the cost and Professor Skilton has identified some areas that could see such changes in the next decade or two:

  • Unmanned systems - for example drones delivering and moving stock in warehouses; automated material movement; and smart stock control systems.  These could replace 50-70 per cent of material logistics tasks done by humans.
  • Smart sensor-actuator systems - for example automated vehicle maintenance monitoring systems, robotic drivers, connected self-driving vehicles. These could replace 20-30 per cent of transport jobs done by humans.
  • Computational control – examples such as massive image and data processing systems to simulate and create new big data insights impossible to do by humans.  This could create new potential but also replace 10-30 per cent of marketing and intelligence gathering human tasks.   

A new brain drain
Professor Mark Skilton
Professor Mark Skilton

As well as jobs being under threat the huge resources and research departments of companies like Google and Apple, with their global reach, is also something governments must consider as they hoover up the best scientists and computer experts in the world.

“Google’s recent restructure has put an emphasis on speeding up advances in smart technology, robotics and self-driving cars as the new market for cyber intelligent products,” adds Professor Skilton. 

“Apart from the ‘brain drain’ this creates in countries not able to compete with these huge R&D centric companies, there will also be an impact on how wealth and skills are distributed in the global economy, so governments will need to protect their economies and incomes.”

Not all doom and gloom

There may be threats, but massive growth of the internet, the explosion of data and the emerging internet of things will also create opportunities for specialist SMEs to develop algorithms or resell AI services to business.  

“This will accelerate as more marketplaces for innovation become the ‘norm’ for corporations seeking to get more ideas and solutions into their business,” says Professor Skilton. “SMEs that focus on AI, such as natural language processing for smart workflow management or specialists in complex algorithms for unique analytics, will have success in this emerging market.

“The down side is that complex highly sophisticated and expensive AI computational machines may price SMEs out of the market.

Assistant Professor of Information Systems Emmanouil Gkeredakis
Dr Emmanouil Gkeredakis

“But new AI solutions are coming on the market all the time by innovators that may target more cost effective offers.”

And it is not just business opportunities for entrepreneurs that AI will bring. Professor Skilton believes society will benefit as well through these technological advances.

“I think it is also important to balance the so-called threats with the potential for enhanced human life and to offer higher quality services to more of the global population,” says Professor Skilton. “It’s a moral and social question of responsibility as well as an economic and ethical issue.

“We need to start now to put in place controls on AI and robotics so the creators, the humans, and the world will benefit.”

Mark Skilton teaches Introduction to Consulting and Developing Consulting Expertise on the MSc Business suite of Postgraduate courses. He also teaches Information Systems Consultancy on the MSc Information Systems Management & Innovation.

Emmanouil Gkeredakis teaches Knowledge, Work and Innovation on the MSc Information Systems Management & Innovation and Business IT and Services on the MSc Management.

Top image: Jon Candy Flickr

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