Will ro­bots take over our jobs in the fu­ture?

There’s noth­ing to fear if we keep pace with changes by up­skilling, say ex­perts


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.”

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 mas­ter’s 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, age­ing pop­u­la­tions, ex­plo­sion of both men­tal and phys­i­cal con­di­tions such as de­men­tia and obe­sity.”


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.

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