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Published on News24: 14 December 2017

  

With advances in robotics and artificial intelligence entering an exponential phase, every-day jobs performed by billions of human beings are on the brink of being replaced by technology.


It’s not often a Youtube video stops me in my tracks, but that’s exactly what happened when I watched Boston Dynamics' latest videoclip of their Atlas robot doing backflips.


My first thought was how long it would be before the US Military starts issuing semi-automatic weapons to platoons of Atlas robots. Fortunately, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are still a few decades away from replacing human infantry units.


As for us civilians, the Atlas robot represents a far more onerous and imminent threat to our livelihoods. For instance, in one of the video sequences Atlas can be seen packing boxes into shelves. It won’t be long before Atlas is restocking supermarket shelves, conducting stock counts, managing supplier orders/deliveries and manning walk-through tills.


Robots or people?


Retail store managers might be tempted to have a team of 10 robots performing the jobs of 40 employees.


The benefits of having robots instead of a people speak for themselves: they wouldn’t require remuneration, medical aid, pension fund contributions, leave, lunch breaks, uniforms, a canteen, change rooms or even toilets. Not only this, they can work at full production 24/7.


Robots are also unlikely to be head-hunted, job-hop, steal, make mistakes, arrive at work inebriated, join a union, go on strike, harass fellow employees, require disciplinary action, or suffer debilitating episodes of low morale. Importantly, they possess no racial or gender classification, thus simplifying a company’s transformation bureaucracy.


Most appealing though, is that robots cannot be injured or killed like their human counterparts, and won’t sue their employer if they happen to suffer a mechanical failure.


From a corporate perspective, it would make good business sense for human staff to be kept at a minimum, while robots carry out all the menial tasks previously undertaken by people.


Which jobs are most at risk of robotics and AI


Although many industries are experiencing a steady rise in the technological displacement of human workforce, people underestimate just how quickly this phenomenon will overhaul the job market over the next few decades. To mention a few examples:


Mechanisation in the mining industry has already replaced millions of mining jobs, and this process will not stop until such time as machines are doing 100% of the work – particularly in hazardous environments. The sad reality is, there will be fewer and fewer jobs available in large mining operations as robots continue to take over.


Autonomous vehicles, trains and aircraft are set to rock every area of the global transport industry. Although there are still hurdles that must be overcome before autonomous transport is rolled out en masse, make no mistake, it is expanding and will become the norm far more quickly than we think.


Combat drones have also proven themselves to be a huge asset in aerial warfare. It is highly likely that these unmanned drones will supersede their manned counterparts, removing further military personnel from the dangerous coal-face of war.


And then there’s the escort industry which is suddenly dealing with an unprecedented competitor – the sex robot. These robots are programmed to provide ‘sex on demand’ with minimal risk of acquiring/transmitting an STD, zero risk of unplanned pregnancy, and total confidentiality.


Just how popular these sex robots will become is anyone’s guess, but all indications are that the industry is set to boom as the technology evolves.


Both ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ jobs at risk


It’s widely believed that the jobs most at risk of technological takeover are those classified as ‘unskilled’ jobs. This is valid to a certain degree but people shouldn’t be complacent to believe that their ‘skilled’ jobs are beyond the reach of technological innovation – as might well be the case with US fighter pilots.


A recent article published by The Guardian titled, ‘What jobs will still be around in 20 years?’, gives useful insight into which jobs will likely survive the tidal wave of automation, and which are likely to be rendered obsolete. It makes for fascinating reading and should be used by parents and educational institutions when sharing career advice with their children/students.


This should also serve as a wake-up to all those people currently employed in these ‘least secure’ jobs. Where they’re not necessarily prepared to bend over backwards for their employers, Atlas is waiting on the side lines ready to do backflips for any prospective employer.


The futility of protecting obsolete jobs


The South African government has made clear its willingness to protect obsolete jobs. For instance, petrol attendants and supermarket tellers hardly exist in other modern economies.


Although there are advantages for those who benefit, this strategy can stifle a nation’s drive for innovation, especially if new cost-cutting technologies are outlawed in the interest of preserving jobs.


South Africa cannot risk falling behind the global tech curve. If we are to improve our international competitiveness then we need to ride the tech-curve alongside all the other major global players.


From a contrarian’s perspective, this might well result in more jobs being created than those being protected – especially if our education system complements technological innovation.


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