Report warning many jobs in Republic at risk to automation ‘overstated’

Economist accepts AI will reshape jobs but believes new UCC report is ‘fear inducing’

A leading economist has said the report overstates the likely impact technology is going to have on workforces across Ireland. Photograph: iStock

A leading economist has said the report overstates the likely impact technology is going to have on workforces across Ireland. Photograph: iStock

 

A leading economist has described a University College Cork report warning two out of every five jobs across the State are at high risk of being lost to automation as “overstated”.

Those working in office, secretarial and administrative support positions are seen as being most at risk, along with process plant operators and employees working in agriculture and customer service.

Edgeworthstown, in Co Longford, is identified as the town with the highest risk from automation.

Dr Lisa Wilson, an economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute, said on Friday the UCC report is “fear inducing” and overstates the likely impact technology is going to have on workforces across Ireland.

Earlier this year, the Belfast-based economist spoke at a Dublin conference organised by the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants and said the “perceived unstoppable march of robots coming to take our jobs is overstated”.

She remains of that view and says Edgworthstown and places like it should not overly fear the future workplace.

Developments

Dr Wilson accepts that the workplace is evolving and many jobs will inevitably be reshaped by advances in robotics and developments in artificial intelligence but she maintains that the vast majority of jobs which require human intervention will continue to do so.

She points out that the UCC study – like many international studies – focuses on occupations in the broadest sense rather than looking at the individual tasks required of them.

She cites the example of a receptionist, a role with multiple functions, some of which can be easily replicated by an automated system. Getting a machine to answer a call and direct it to a particular extension is not difficult but getting a robot to greet people or engage with customers in a meaningful way is going to be a lot more challenging.

She also questions whether a widespread shift to automation will make economic sense for many businesses. “The reality is for a lot of small businesses it’s going to be cheaper to use people rather than invest in new technology,” she says.

“We will see vast changes in the tasks people perform and will see jobs changing dramatically. But that doesn’t mean jobs will disappear,” she says.

“I think this report is fear inducing and massively overstating the impact technology will have. Jobs will be lost but new jobs will be created and existing jobs will change.”

She points out that we have been here before many times and countless jobs which were once the norm have all but disappeared.

Glimmermen

When street lighting first came to Ireland they were powered by gas and lit each night by glimmermen. Coopers made the barrels in which Guinness – and a lot more besides – were transported up and down the Liffey, loaded on to boats by thousands of dockers.

Milk men, compositors, switchboard operators and typists are just some of the other jobs that have all but entirely disappeared since the start of the 20th century.

But while many jobs of today are similarly under threat other jobs – some of which we can barely imagine today – will take their place, Dr Wilson believes.

And in any event she says people still like human interactions and they like to talk to other people. “That is a constant so I think the idea that in the near future people will be redundant is simply wrong while the notion that soon we will all be cared for by robotic nurses is nonsense.”