'As well or better than humans': Automation set for big promotions in white-collar job market

Experts say the technological upheaval that's rocked industrial manufacturing for decades is set for rapid expansion into white-collar roles — in fact, it's already begun in some sectors.

Expert says millions of Canadian jobs could be at risk over next decade

Experts say Canadian workers could be in for some major upheaval over the next decade as increasingly intelligent software, robotics and artificial intelligence perform more sophisticated tasks in the economy. (CBC News)

Tory Shoreman thought she was safe.

As far as career choices go, working in mortgage financing at one of the country's top banks seemed like a solid bet.

She figured there would be more job security than many other professions and plenty of opportunities to climb the corporate ladder in Toronto.

That was back in 2010.

Over the next seven years, she says she had a front-row seat to watch automation — most often intelligent software — take over nearly every aspect of mortgage processing.

Tory Shoreman worked at one of Canada's top banks and says she watched automation take out 40 per cent of her department. (CBC News)

"I witnessed about 40 per cent of my department get laid off and the reason they were given was automation," the 32-year-old told CBC News. "And these are people who had spent years getting trained to be experts in this field. A lot of it was pretty shocking to all of us."

Experts say the technological upheaval that's rocked industrial manufacturing for decades is set for rapid expansion into white-collar roles — in fact, it's already begun in some sectors. The concern is that if people aren't prepared to adapt — and quickly — they could be left without work.

Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre think-tank at the University of Toronto, says millions more Canadians — between 1.5 million and 7.5 million, many of them highly skilled workers — could face such a fate over the next decade because of rapid technological advances, including in artificial intelligence and robotics, and the potential for automating increasingly sophisticated tasks.

Public policy expert Sunil Johal says many highly skilled Canadian workers are at risk of being replaced by automation in the next decade. (CBC News)

Johal says, at this point, nobody should consider their job "safe."

"We are starting to see in fields like medicine, law, investment banking, dramatic increases in the ability of computers to think as well or better than humans. And that's really the game-changer here. Because that's something that we have never seen before."

A pizzeria owned by a Canadian ex-pat in Silicon Valley provides a glimpse at how far and fast automation might go. Zume is a "co-bot" environment where robots Pepe, Jojo and Bruno help prepare the pizzas. Within five years, owner Alex Garden says the entire operation could be automated.

"If you called to place your order with us you would probably be speaking to our artificial intelligence phone operator, and you may even have a drone or a self-driving car delivering your pizza," Garden said.

Robots making pizza

6 years ago
Duration 0:53
At ZUME pizza in Silicon Valley, robots are making pizza and winning the market

There is little data to show for certain what impact more intelligent automation has already had on the job market, largely because it's often more subtle than what happened on industrial assembly lines. Johal says people can be shuffled around, moved into other positions or slowly phased out.

And while there's some debate among experts about how fast and dramatic the disruption will be, all agree change is coming.

Consider what's already happened at Goldman Sachs. In 2000, the investment bank had 600 U.S. cash equities traders — highly-skilled, high-income workers — on its floor. Today, it has two — backed by 200 software engineers.

'Left on the sidelines'

Johal's fear is that not everyone will be able to develop and maintain the skill sets necessary to compete in the changing job market.

"If Canada doesn't take this seriously, we are going to see many Canadians left on the sidelines of the labour market," he said. "They are not going to be able to get back into the job force."

Since resistance is likely futile, some Canadians have decided to get ahead of what's coming.

Benjamin Alarie is the CEO of tech startup Blue J Legal, whose next generation legal software is designed to replace some of the work lawyers do.

"In the past," he said, "you would have gone to a law library and walked through the stacks and found the books relevant to your case, and produced often a stack of materials to read and then you go back to a desk and spend many hours working through all of those hard-copy materials."

Ben Alarie is CEO of Blue J Legal, a tech company that sells software that can quickly perform tasks that would take lawyers days to accomplish. (CBC News)

But his software asks the user questions to better understand the case, then scans huge amounts of case law to determine possible outcomes and solutions.

What the software can do in moments would take a human days to accomplish.

But Alarie isn't trying to replace humans with software.

By day, he's a law professor at the University of Toronto, where he trains the lawyers of tomorrow. He says young people expect automation to be part of the work they do.

"This kind of technology is an obvious ally in advising their clients, so it's a way for them to be better, stronger lawyers and to really test their intuitions, and in years past it was just technologically impossible," he said.

Embracing change

In December, Tory Shoreman also decided to get ahead.

She quit her banking job and enrolled in a three-month intensive boot camp to learn coding at Lighthouse Labs.

Her hope? To launch a career in software development.

"I had to be realistic about where the [finance] industry is going and not just the industry but where everybody is going. Where the whole business world is going," she said.

Shoreman realizes she'll likely have to make more big changes down the road.

"And while my career may not look like what my grandfather's career looked like in terms of stable full-time employment and climbing the ladder, there is still going to be lots of opportunities out there for me," she said.

"And there is nothing wrong with that."


Angela Hennessy is a producer for The National. Before landing at CBC in 2015, Angela was a reporter for various Toronto news outlets. She graduated from Ryerson University with a degree in journalism and also has a bachelor of arts and international relations from Western University.


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