Facing the Robot Future

by David Lyons, Managing Director at eBoss Online Recruitment Database Solutions.

It was not so long ago that tomorrow’s world was somewhere everybody wanted to live. You didn’t have to be in the queue for a jet pack or a self-cleaning oven to appreciate the benefits of a robotic future.

And then, all of a sudden, we seemed to lose our enthusiasm for that vision of tomorrow. While there may have been a number of underlying causes for the change of heart, the chief among those must surely have been the familiar question: “how will future generations afford to live when all of the jobs are carried out by machines?”

The rise of the robot workforce has been discussed with increasing frequency – and sensationalism – in the last few months. At least one source has called for artificial intelligence to be classified as “an invasive species”; and Tesla boss Elon Musk has described AI as “the biggest risk we face as a civilisation”. When even the rational minds at Business Insider are inviting readers to check their own, impending redundancy with a jobs obsolescence calculator, it is easy to lose your enthusiasm for the future.

But an automated dystopia might not be as certain as all that. As part of a team whose core duties include the automation of professional services in the recruitment sector, I have had the good fortune to see technology impacting on employment from both sides of the jobs market, every day.

And it is not as bad as you might think.

All too human?

For a start, there are many more roles that are resistant to automation than one may first assume – simply because robots cannot yet complete the necessary tasks in any satisfactory manner. Either the fine motor skills of machines do not meet the required level or, in other cases, their learning capabilities lack the lateral thinking, pragmatism, or the improvisational problem-solving skills needed to corner those areas of employment. So that means the C-suite strategists are safe for the time being (although, was that ever in doubt?).

In other sectors, it is a matter of public confidence and human accountability. You may decide that machine-crafted jewellery is, in fact, not so bad once you see that it is identical in appearance, and a fraction of the price, of a hand-tooled piece. But would you feel the same way about your robot heart surgeon? Perhaps not. When responsibility is a key facet of any position – be it a doctor, carer, or customer relations manager – the human touch is vital.

And human accountability is not the only consideration here. soft skills add value to many roles. We like to have a human dealing with our customer complaints not only because we need somebody to blame. An individual with well-developed soft skills and a talent for the role can actually improve our perception of a brand after a poor experience, by resolving our needs in a sensitive and intuitive manner. For some duties, the human touch is the irreplaceable component, and this is an area of employment almost guaranteed to see expansion. In a recent study, Deloitte stated that, by 2030, 63 per cent of jobs will likely be earned by candidates possessing the greatest aptitude for these intangible abilities.

So, while you may have a somewhat negative outlook on robotic workers if you have already used that jobs automation checker and received a bleak prognosis, the truth is that we may see little change in the net total of positions available for future generations. And, even when jobs are replaced, they will not necessarily be lost.

Reality Check

There is a reason why the digitisation of the labour market is being described as a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”*. The dawning of the AI age is encouraging business leaders to make drastic reappraisals of their operations; this is creating new opportunities. While much of the AI debate reads like science fiction, we see less discussion about the wealth of new roles that are being created by the digital readiness initiatives that innovators are already putting into action.

Vocations which meet the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, and help with the implementation of smarter forms of automation, are not simply growing in number – they are being created for the very first time. A January 2016 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) into the future of jobs concluded that the most frequently sought-after skills which businesses need to achieve digital readiness are ones that were not even recognised as viable careers as little as ten – sometimes five – years ago.

Our employment landscape is undergoing a tectonic shift: one that will span a generation, rather than resolving itself in a matter of years. The WEF report estimates that 65 per cent of children who entered primary schooling in the last year will be working in professions that, today, do not even exist. We should perhaps be worrying less about whether our children will have jobs – and more about whether we have any hope of understanding the ones they will have.

Internet of Things

The final reason to be cheerful is the significant scale and reach of the digital transformation. It will touch every area of our societies. Perhaps our gloomy outlook for the future is just a symptom of being unable to appreciate the scope of the changes that await?

For instance, when you hear the term “user interface engineer”, you are more likely to think of Silicon Valley than Sainsbury’s. But that is no longer the case. Highly specialised areas of knowledge – from machine learning technicians, to AI developers and robotics engineers – are already considered vital acquisitions for HR departments across diverse industries, from banking to retail.

The number of operatives working in these fields is currently so small that – when their services do become available – they rarely stay in the employment space for very long. Among businesses already undertaking their digital readiness programmes, there are far more concerns raised over a skills drought than a jobs shortage. I am asked how to improve candidate search times more than any other question.

Planning for tomorrow

Though it makes for good headlines, the sensationalism of the AI debate may in fact be distracting us from a far more pressing issue. The concern should not be one of future employment, or automated working environments, but of how education will cope in the future.

How will our schools and universities match the accelerating pace of a digital jobs market? We are already attempting to close a skills gap which opened because we did not know five years ago which skills we would need from our workforce today. How do we learn lessons from that, and ensure our recruiters have access to the requisite skills, when we need them, in the future? Having spent more than ten years developing software that – ironically – enables computers to find the most qualified people for any job, I would have to say that there are still no easy answers to that conundrum.

*The previous three industrial revolutions were: steam mechanisation (1790s); electrification (1880s); networked computing (1960s).
About the author

David is the Managing Director of eBoss Online Recruitment Database Solutions: one of a handful of truly independent software development brands creating bespoke solutions for the recruitment industry. David works to expand the understanding of software automation in the recruitment process and why, when used correctly, it improves outcomes for candidate and recruiter alike.

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