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Will robots take our jobs?

Those who keep pace with the changing employment landscape by continual upskilling have nothing to fear from automation, says experts

Preparation is key if we are not only to cope with the rise of artificial intelligence, but benefit fully from it. Photograph: iStock

Preparation is key if we are not only to cope with the rise of artificial intelligence, but benefit fully from it. Photograph: iStock


The robots are coming – for your job. A study by consulting firm McKinsey suggests about half the activities people are paid to do globally could theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies. Plus ça change, suggests Paul Healy, chief executive of Skillnet Ireland, the national agency responsible for the promotion of workforce learning.

“This fear of machines replacing jobs is an old one. You only have to look back to the Luddites smashing Spinning Jennies to see that people have always been suspicious of technology. However, the historical reality is that with every advancement, work has been enabled by technology. New technology has been shown to create growth and additional value.”

Just look at farms, where human-powered ploughs gave way to animal-powered ones, and eventually tractors.

Jobs were displaced along the way, “but overall that has been more than compensated for by growth and expansion”, Healy says.

Given this long historical context, there is, he feels, a certain irony to the fact that people are fretting about automation now, “when at no point in history have so many people been employed as there are now. At the same time, never has technology been more diffuse around the globe as now.”

There are, however, two main differences between the potential disruption of new technology versus that which came before. “Firstly, there is the nature of it. We are seeing technology, enabled by artificial intelligence, big data and internet of things, reaching into industry sectors, across all categories and tasks, in a way that is more pervasive than ever before,” Healy says.

“Secondly, the spread of that diffusion, the transfer of technology into work, is taking place at a greater pace than at any time in history. That’s why this is a new paradigm, and one that puts us in uncharted waters.”

And roads. Talking about the rise of autonomous vehicles is all very well, until you realise that about 15 per cent of men working today drive a vehicle of some kind for work, be it a tractor, lorry, van, car or bus, he points out. “So yes, the implications for men of autonomous vehicles alone is significant, but ever was it thus,” says Healy.

The key to coping with such changes is to ensure your skills keep pace with a changing workplace, and the only way to do that is through continuous and lifelong learning.

But even leaving technology aside, there are already good reasons for doing that, he points out. “We are living longer, thanks to medical advances and better nutrition, so by implication we will be working longer too. Retirement age has already been pushed back. It means career management re skills, and in particular upskilling becomes hugely important.”

The best way to respond to a changing employment landscape is through developing career agility, adaptability and career management, in a self-directed way.

“This is also because of another megatrend we are seeing in the workplace right now, the changing employment model. The standard job for life, permanent and pensionable model is diminishing anyway. According to the International Labour Organisation, in 20 years only one in four jobs will be of that standard employee model.”

With or without the robots, change remains a constant in the world of work – it’s just that the pace is quickening. “It means the old notion of, I’ve a degree, I’ll never have to train again, has to be challenged, because it’s not fit for the world we live in today.”

Lifelong learning

Unfortunately, Ireland is in the bottom quartile of OECD and EU statistics for lifelong learning, with just 8 per cent of adults in the workforce looking at reskilling, compared with more than 30 per cent in some Nordic countries. The current National Skills Strategy target is 15 per cent.

There is another reason, however, why Irish workers might find themselves at more risk from a changing work environment – productivity. “The productivity of a workforce is key to the prospering of the economy. Ireland’s productivity looks healthy at a macro level but is being masked by the activity of multinationals. If you dig down into the data you find that the productivity levels of SMEs is stagnating or going backwards. That’s an issue that has been identified by both the OECD and the National Competitiveness Council. ”

Again, the low uptake of lifelong learning among employees contributes to that, as does a lack of management development. “When you consider that around 800,000 people work in SMEs, there’s a concern that we are storing up significant trouble for the future,” says Healy.

Skillnet Ireland helps businesses with workforce planning, development and innovation needs, and will help 50,000 people, from 15,000 firms, in 55 different industries to develop their on-the-job skills this year.

When it comes to the rise of the robots, it’s particularly important that as many people as possible have the skills to develop, manage and leverage the advantages they will bring. It has also been instrumental in developing Ireland’s first masters degree programme in Artificial Intelligence, which is being run at the University of Limerick, a highly complex endeavour that involved working with 38 technology firms to establish future needs.

Preparation is key if we are not only to cope with the rise of artificial intelligence, but benefit fully from it.

“Without wishing to belittle real and tangible impacts technology can have on society where jobs can be irreversibly displaced, the downsides of major disruptive forces often arise from the failure of society to collectively and proactively plan for our future,” says Owen Lewis, partner in Management Consulting at KPMG.

“The human race has never let technological advancements put them out of business before and I am convinced that this new wave of intelligent machines will free up humankind to focus on critically important aspects that are in some ways a greater threat to our existence such as climate change, rapid decline in biodiversity, aging populations, explosion of both mental and physical conditions such as dementia and obesity.”

Rising to the challenge of AI

Artificial intelligence provides us with an opportunity to unlock our intelligent minds from the mundane and focus on both the urgent and the future, writes Owen Lewis, partner in Management Consulting at KPMG.

It is incumbent on society to build a future that we can all prosper in and therefore there needs to be consideration of a number of factors.

How will we reward and encourage innovation and open up opportunities for human kind to make possible what was once impossible?

How will we distribute the world’s wealth when everyday jobs have been replaced by machines? Will there be an “honest day’s work” available for everyone?

What new skills do we need to make sure we equip our society with? Is everyone going to be a coder and come from a STEM background, or do we also need to put more emphasis on human-to-human professions such as carers, teachers, physical exercise trainers, and other jobs we have not yet thought of?

What is becoming clearer is that these discussions are becoming much more focused, with most governments placing societal impact front and centre of emerging technology innovation.

Artificial intelligence tasks leaders of the modern world – government, tech giants, futurologists – with the real question of where will our human intelligence evolve us to next. We’ve been here before and I have a sneaky feeling the humans will rise to the challenge.