The robots are coming (but there will be benefits)

Mass redeployment rather than unemployment on the cards as automation takes hold

The robots are coming but while they might steal many of our jobs and cause significant social upheaval, it isn’t all bad, delegates at the FutureScope conference in Dublin were told on Thursday.

Speakers at the one-day event said there is no doubt that automation is changing the way we work and that more must be done to ensure we manage the changes effectively.

Siobhan O'Shea, client services director at listed technology recruitment firm CPL, said the impact of robots in the workplace was already beginning to be felt.

The rise of automation will lead “not to mass unemployment, but mass redeployment” of workers,” she said.


Ms O’Shea said education is a key area in which preparation for future changes needs to be made.

She noted that the number of teachers in Ireland with qualifications in biology currently outnumbers those with qualifications in physics by three to one and that this needs to change.

“Ireland has one of the lowest rates in Europe for lifelong learning so it presents a systemic challenge for us,” she said.

“With advances in technology growing what people learn at college or university now will be out of date within two years,” Ms O’Shea added.

Social unrest

Anthony Behan, industry lead in IBM's Watson IoT division said while there will be job losses, there will also be opportunities, many of which we've yet to imagine.

“We have enormous amounts of jobs being created in new areas due to technological innovation, it isn’t just about losing them, Mr Behan said.

“We shouldn’t be too apocalyptic or dystopian about the changes that are coming,” he added.

Nonetheless, Mr Behan warned that governments need to look closely at how widespread technological change can lead to social unrest.

He noted how the miner’s strike in Britain in the 1980s arose in part because the government of the day failed to prepare for an increased use of automation in mining.

“Work is a social thing so we need to do more to prepare for new jobs,” he said.

Derek Collins, director of industry engagement at Huawei, called for the creation of a taskforce in Ireland to look at the possible impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in Ireland.

“In the long term, the net gains will be considerable. The coming of the robots is not all doom and gloom,” he said.

Such a view was echoed by Prof Barry O’Sullivan, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in Cork.

He told The Irish Times that while London currently leads Europe in terms of AI, Ireland could benefit in a post-Brexit world.

Some 1,200 people were in attendance at this year’s FutureScope, which is organised by Dublin BIC. The event seeks to promote closer collaboration between entrepreneurs and large enterprises.

Other topics under discussion at the event on Thursday included future connectivity options, opportunities in agri-tech, cybersecurity threats, and how blockchain will reshape investment.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist