How to stop robots from taking everyone's jobs

Even as automation becomes more frequent, society and employers can do three things to retain livelihoods

FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 18, 2017, file photo, a new security robot, nicknamed ROD2, drives toward Daniel Webb as it patrols the sidewalks and parking garage at River Oaks District in Houston. The robot recently became the latest addition to a patrol team eager to experiment with fast-evolving technology. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of Americans say it is at least �������somewhat realistic������� that robots and computers will eventually perform most of the jobs currently done by people. Roughly the same proportion worry that such an outcome will have negative consequences, such as worsening inequality. (Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)
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Accelerated by the global pandemic, there is a growing fear of a robo-apocalypse – a dystopian world with machines enriching the 1 per cent and leaving the rest of us destitute.

As humans struggle to learn 21st-century skills, employers are increasingly turning to the mind-bending capabilities of AI software and increasingly humanlike robots to fill in the gaps in the workforce.

There is no question that new technologies are automating a range of tasks that people are tired of performing. Many people have found they no longer want to do the boring, repetitive work that makes them feel like robots. And employers are relentlessly employing technology to “free up” people from that leaden kind of work.

The truth is, robots and software don’t take away jobs. They simply automate tasks; it is ultimately a human’s decision if a job gets taken away.

That is why we need to embrace human-centric work. Your human ability to solve new problems, to continually adapt, to use creativity and to empathise with others – these are all unique skills that technology won’t replace for a very long time.

That doesn’t mean that many jobs won’t be lost. Manual work has been on the decline since the 1950s, when, in the US, for instance, more than 1 million people worked in clothing factories, almost 1.5 million in the railway system, and more than 500,000 in coal mining. Technology replaced many of these roles, improving the quality and efficiency of output, but displacing workers.

The pre-pandemic numbers weren’t very encouraging, either. A 2017 study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that 73 million jobs would be automated worldwide by 2030. The pandemic created some temporary labour shortages that in some cases means jobs won’t go away as quickly. But in other cases, it has dramatically accelerated automation to fill unmet demand.

Robots are now making pizzas, cleaning skyscraper windows, harvesting food and many other formerly human tasks. Robotic process automation software, which uses AI to learn quickly how a repetitive human task is performed and then repeat it automatically, is being used in white-collar settings in jobs once the sole domain of humans.

Of course, humans have worried about job-stealing technologies for centuries. At the dawn of the industrial revolution in Britain, a group of workers known as the Luddites demanded higher wages and destroyed textile machinery. The relentless march of technology will inevitably continue to erode work. But it can also create a huge amount of new work, if we make sure three important things happen.

An increasing number of skills will be applicable across all industries, such as problem-solving, adaptability, creativity and empathy

First, we need to shift the attention of startups and investors from simply automating human tasks, to empowering people to learn new skills and solve new problems more effectively. In this way, AI can not just create more jobs, it can create better ones.

As we move forward, new roles are being created every day, each of which requires a new skillset. Consider that a few short years ago, a role like social media manager didn’t even exist – and now that job is everywhere. New exponential technologies can breed exponential opportunity.

Second, each of us needs to commit to continually learning new skills. As the shelf life of information continues to decay, we need to increasingly focus on “flex” skills, which are often (and unfortunately) called soft skills. In the future, an increasing number of skills will no longer be sector-specific, but will be applicable across all industries, such as problem-solving, adaptability, creativity and empathy – what I refer to as PACE. In fact, a recent Deloitte Australia report found that almost two thirds of occupations will be based on such skills by 2030. We need to be lifelong learners to continually stay ahead of robots and AI.

Finally, employers must do their part. They need to develop and buy those technologies that help to empower humans. They need to commit to training and job design that ensure that workers are continually employed. Laying off workers whose skills are no longer required is an “old rule” of work. As the rate of technological change only increases, no specific job title will remain the same for long. That is why organisations should empower their employees not only to constantly learn but to learn how to learn, baking skills development into the day-to-day work of every employee.

If we fail to do this, we’ll continue to have the dramatic mismatches that characterise our work markets today – plenty of jobs available, but fewer people trained to do them.

But if we commit to co-creating these “next” rules of work together, the workplace of tomorrow will be far more humane, and we’ll ensure that no human is left behind.

Published: January 31, 2022, 7:00 AM