This year it feels like robots are suddenly everywhere. Geneva airport is trialling a robotic “baggage butler”. Adidas has announced it will make shoes at a German facility populated overwhelmingly by machines. We are already driving cars that make split-second corrections to our poor decisions, and Google and others are advancing ever closer to allowing us to simply sit back and let the vehicle do all of the work.
There are retailers and logistics companies investigating the potential of drones delivering everything from groceries and takeaways to vital medicine and emergency aid, while various stories of robotic doctors, robotic bankers and robotic artificial intelligence are a newsfeed staple.
This is really all as the science fiction of the 20th century predicted. We don’t yet live on Mars or arrive at work on hoverboards, but the idea of a future where robots take over menial tasks and free up our time appears to be a real and closer reality.
The concern, I would suggest, is that in this glorious image of a shiny robotic future, nobody mentioned that the robot butler was going to venture outside domesticity and head for your workplace. Even less that it was going to barge you unceremoniously out of the way on its way through the doors.
Because that does seem to be the suggestion: the robots are rolling in and gunning for your job. Just as the technological world has gifted us the means to effortlessly network across continents, work remotely and add skills and qualifications from the comfort of our own sofas, the machines have apparently arrived to swipe it all away.
And the extent of their potential capabilities seems to grow by the day. Not content with menial roles, there is increasing consensus that artificial intelligence means even seemingly safe skill areas – leadership and decision-making, creativity and problem-solving – are not beyond the reach of their grasping metallic fingers. Already there have been discussions about how automation and computerisation will increasingly encroach on even highly esteemed and highly skilled areas such as finance and medicine; not by simply reducing workload but by reducing headcount.
All of which sounds far from promising for those of us still hoping to play a role in this futuristic workplace. Think about it too hard and you might feel you’re staring into the precipice of being rendered entirely obsolete. And, if the Terminator and his friends are coming, is there anything a simple human can do?
The Luddite response – to simply resist the technology’s advance – is surely an unwinnable position. Organisations, of course, embrace new technology wherever it offers improved efficiency and productivity, and this is certainly something that this century’s automated advancements promise. It is, by and large, a simple economic decision, the logic of which is hard to fault, and the likely financial benefits difficult to resist.
If there is comfort to be had, it is that the nature of professional development and survival has always been thus – a need to traverse the gap between what you currently know and what you need to know to stay relevant and ultimately useful in the workplace. At any given moment in time, professionals have needed to think about their current skills and capacities, and be ready and willing to grow them further.
This is true whether you had to transition between the steam and combustion engines, typewriter and mainframe, or the world of smartphones, the cloud and whatever comes next.
It’s a brave person who makes definite and assured predictions about the future of the workplace.
As a professional, it is better to simply approach your own career development with the same level of active awareness and attention as you should have been dedicating already. Think about your development areas; keep abreast of the wider market; stay conscious of the advantages of adding specific new skills.
The robots’ rise has simply underlined an already-evident lesson – plateauing and resting on your laurels in your career should never really be an option.
Ahmad Badr is chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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