Get ready for your new co-worker – the robot

Author says successful workers will soon be working with intelligent systems

Sure, robots and intelligent machines are likely to replace jobs in the not so distant future.

The situation, though, isn't as dire as some would have you believe, according to Tom Davenport, co-author of Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines. The book is due out in May.

Instead of stealing humans' jobs , artificial intelligent systems and robotics will help many people do their jobs better.

"We have a new generation of technologies and we need to work with them if we're going to be productive and effective," Davenport said in an interview. "I think that in many cases, we'll be working with these machines as colleagues... I think the people who prosper will be the ones who like working with machines."

There have been a lot of worried headlines and panicky warnings that robots are coming to take everyone's jobs.

The robot uprising, some predict, may end with machine overlords but could begin with robots taking over as as firefighters, mail carriers, hotel concierges, fast food cooks and taxi drivers.

Last November, the chief economist at the Bank of England warned that robots could take over 50 per cent of jobs in both US and British workforces over the next two decades. That would mean the loss of roughly 80 million American and 15 million British jobs.

A few months before that, the Boston Consulting Group predicted that by 2025, robots will go from performing 10 per cent of manufacturing jobs, as they do now, to 25 per cent.

Davenport, who wrote his book with journalist Julia Kirby, also has written Big Data at Work and Thinking for a Living. He said people shouldn't panic.

"We are relatively optimistic, though people shouldn't be too complacent about it," said Davenport, who is a Fellow of the MIT Center for Digital Business and an Information Technology and Management professor at Babson College. "Jobs don't get replaced by robots or cognitive technologies. Tasks do. Many knowledge worker jobs will have tasks chopped away, but we tend to do a lot of things within our jobs.... We'll see some marginal job loss - maybe in the range of 10% to 20%, but we'll see some new jobs created too."

Those job losses are expected over the next 10 years or so, according to Davenport.

"These things take a lot longer than anybody usually predicts," he said. "As container ships become mega ships, we'll need robotic help to unload them quickly. But the longshoremen's union, in the US anyway, has been very hostile to that. If you're a longshoreman, it's not good to become complacent. But we're not going to see millions of people being replaced anytime soon."

Manufacturing and labor-intensive jobs aren't the only ones at risk. Davenport noted that knowledge workers' tasks could be taken over by robotics or smart machines. Over the next 20 years, that could affect fields like law, medicine, accounting, marketing and yes, even journalism.

"Those are the areas being targeted by IBM's Watson and other cognitive technologies," said Davenport. "They involve so much knowledge that humans just can't deal with it anymore. Oncology, for instance, is so complex, and with genomics, how do you keep track of all the cancer genes?"

That means people should think about working with robots and smart systems.

"I think that in many cases we'll be working with these machines as colleagues," explained Davenport. "In insurance, a human underwriter might do the more difficult cases where some research is required or some data is missing.... In other cases, the machine might do work you used to do and you're just making sure it's done well. Or it'll be like they're working for you."

Those who accept that kind of change and embrace it are likely to do well.

"I do think it's not unreasonable that as we see particular tasks being taken over, we get quite nervous about it," he added. "Work is pretty important to us humans. To take that away is kind of scary. For knowledge workers, which are at the higher end of the food chain, that's pretty scary."

For those doing the jobs expected to be taken over by machines, it's time to look at how they can oversee the robots or find different tasks once they're freed up from more mundane chores. They could also consider moving into positions where they're building robots, supporting them or marketing them.

If you want to avoid robots, then you need to select a profession carefully. Davenport recommends TV comedy writing.

"There is plenty of room for optimism," said Davenport. "The machines will take over tasks that were not that exciting to begin with. And if they're diagnosing cancer faster or making suggestions for better cancer treatments, how do you object to that?"

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld (US)
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