Are workplace robots making people redundant?

When his grandmother suffered a stroke, Feras Dayoub spent many hours at her side.For the robotic scientist, caring for her was a labour of love. But after a life of independence, the constant attention made his grandmother feel guilty – and trapped.


She was always saying, ‘Go away. Just rest. See your friends,’ ” Dr Dayoub recalls.

Lamenting his grandmother’s loss of privacy and freedom, the ingenious grandson – who builds artificial intelligence at the Queensland University of Technology – dreams of a future where robots return independence to older people, and improve everyone’s quality of life.

Dr. Dayoub conducts research, experimenting with an Adept Guiabot, a one-meter, 60 kg mobile robot. He aims to develop methods enabling automatons to navigate changing environments, like family homes, for potential use as domestic helpers.

But what about the other jobs they will take? What will become of the nurses and personal carers who currently look after older people, and provide that invaluable human contact?

In the revolutionary future just around the corner, robots may prove to be a double-edged sword, taking over burdensome and risky tasks and increasing productivity, while also wreaking havoc on our workforce.

For those employed in areas replaceable by robots, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates is the voice of doom.

During a recent interview at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, Mr Gates predicted that within two decades many humans “at the lower end of the skill set” would be muscled out of the workforce by the very robots created to help us.

Confirming this, researchers at Oxford University last year calculated that 47 per cent of American jobs are at high risk of being replaced by computerisation within 20 years.

So which jobs can we expect to lose in the short term?

Farming: at risk

Founder of Brisbane-based Freelance Robotics William Pagnon has done a lot of work on automated tractors and irrigators to speed up the job of farmers.

For now, the law requires tractors to have a driver, but according to Mr Pagnon, farm hands will soon be able to press a button and then “crack a beer and look at the Internet or something.”

According to the Oxford University report, the probability that the work of farm labour contractors and pesticide handlers will be outsourced to computerisation is a whopping 97 per cent.

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Manufacturing: at risk

Mr Pagnon has also assisted in revolutionising how cars are built, which some argue is partly to blame for the recent job losses at Holden and Toyota.

The fear of further robotic intrusion into this at-risk area is high.

“Certain companies were asking me to not put [on] my company shirt [so as not to scare their workforce],” says Mr Pagnon.

Their fear was well founded. Oxford University researchers report that many types of manufacturing jobs have a 96 per cent or higher likelihood of being replaced.

Drivers: at risk

Mr Pagnon is also working with the car industry to build fully-automated vehicles, which spells doom for the drivers of taxis, buses, trains – and even aeroplane pilots.

For drivers, farmhands, factory workers, and employees in many other easily automatised industries like mining, “there might be a bit of doom” warns Mr Pagnon, especially if workers fail to adapt and retrain.

Similarly, basic, hands-on tasks, including watch repairing, sewing, telemarketing, etching and engraving, dental assisting, cooking, wood working, postal services, surveying, and landscaping also have a likelihood of over 90 per cent of being computerised, according to the Oxford University report.

‘You need to adapt yourself to the new world that’s coming,” says Mr Pagnon. “If you say, ‘No I’m just [going to] stay as I am’, [then] eventually your job is not going to exist anymore.’

Highly skilled jobs like medicine: safe

Associate Professor Jay Katupitiya, a researcher in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at the University of New South Wales, says that highly skilled jobs like those of doctors and nurses are safe.

Robots will, and already are, improving health care, without a negative impact on the number of jobs.

With the help of robotics, “a surgeon could be in Sydney and carry out operations in Adelaide and then in Perth,” says Professor Katupitiya.

Small robots on wheels could also “supplement the tasks of the nurses”, by delivering medication to the bedside of each patient, reducing the risk of incorrect dosages and drug mixups, and freeing up nurses for more important tasks.

Oxford University researchers suggest that other jobs, which require intelligence and the human touch, such as social workers, occupational therapists, detectives, dentists, teachers, engineers, and the clergy, have a very low likelihood of replacement.

Jobs lost, others gained

In Dr Katupitiya’s view, robots will do away with menial tasks, forcing us to focus on the bigger picture.

“As time goes on, knowledge creation is going to become a big business,” he says.

“If you do not have to drive a bus, you can plan a better way to expand them on the road.”

And for those who dislike creative, finicky, or very difficult tasks, Dr. Katupitiya foresees that many people will be necessary to “maintain, code, program, and work with” the shiny new fleet of mechanical employees.

Each of the robotic researchers interviewed was confidant that humanity can adapt – and even find a better way of life.

“If we can use the robots very effectively, [then] instead of working five days in the week, we can work three days because we are not needed that much,” says Dr Dayoub.

“I would be the first one to welcome this.”

But for those who struggle to adapt, the march of the machines may well leave them far behind.